Science Fiction: New Death seeks to provoke the question - have the Sci Fi visions we once imagined of the future since become a reality? I guess we all know the answer to that one.
Because i write mostly about art and science/technology, i've seen my fair share of exhibitions that reference scifi. However, FACT's latest show is the first one i've visited that is entirely dedicated to science-fiction and visual arts. And in this instance, science fiction isn't explored as the ultimate future forecaster, it is rather the starting point of a reflection on our current condition, an invitation to explore how our relationship with technology has made our everyday lives increasingly look like it is set against the backdrop of a science fiction novel.
Inspired by the work of J.G. Ballard, our story looks to the bleak, man-made landscapes of the future and asks: What happens when virtual environments become indistinguishable from reality? Will our global culture allow us to choose where to live, and who will stop us? What will we do with knowledge that becomes freely available to all? With social platforms acting as camera, how will 'selfies' develop and what new forms of narcissism will thrive? What is it that we need to preserve, and what do we need to change? These questions are explored through intense visualisations of electronic communication, dystopian domestic interiors, and re-enactments of historical revolutionary moments.
New Death, a title which comes from a text that fantasy writer China Miéville wrote for the exhibition, is ominous but so are the glimpses that the participating artists give into the techno-mediated we've built ourselves: conditions of intensified surveillance and repression, border control, loss of citizenship, etc. Not everything is bleak and joyless in the show though. You can bounce off a trampoline and pretend you're an astronaut, meet intelligent robots that attempt to avoid boredom at all costs, you can even participate to the exhibition by writing a story describing a dystopian near future. I don't know what a sci-fi fan would make of the exhibition but i found it smart, provocative and thought-provoking.
Quick overview of the show:
Accomplice is a small clique of social autonomous robots hidden behind one of FACT's gallery walls. Because these machines are curious, they attempt to discover their environment and the first step to live new adventures is to break down the wall. Their mechanical arm relentlessly punches against the wall. In the process, they not only make holes, they are also acquiring knowledge: how the wall react to their poking, how to best expand their horizon and what it is like out there, on the other side of the wall.
As the wall disappears, the robots discover other creatures: the gallery visitors. The more they can see and hear, the more excited and active these robots are getting. Their behaviour, however, isn't predictable and linear. As soon as the movements and noises made by the visitors or the colours and patterns they are wearing have become too familiar, the robots become bored. In a sense, the roles usually taken by the audience and the robots or the artefacts and the visitors are reversed: the robots are the spectators and the gallery goers perform for them.
I had a chance to talk with Rob Saunders at the press view. I scribbled our conversation on a bit of paper, lost it so i'm going to point you to this Robots Podcast: Curious & creative in which he talks about being inspired by Gordon Pask's conversation theory, designing curious systems, the laws of novelty and the social structure that might evolve from them.
The bits and pieces of walls laying unceremoniously on the floor and the unpredictable attitude of the Accomplice robots echo the exhibition experience that Venya Krutikov & Michael Lill of The Kazimier have designed for Science Fiction: New Death. They turned the FACT building into a disordered, stern and slightly disquieting space to navigate. Your movements inside the gallery might or might not be filmed. That poorly-lit corridor might be off limit. That door over there might open on another artworks or maybe it's a dead end.
Before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon in 1969, the NASA elaborated various exercises to understand how man would move in microgravity. The experiments were not just simulations but "pre-enactments" of a new set of rules that we were about to enter, providing a window into the future through which NASA researchers collected not only data but also visual impressions. One such experiment was conducted at Stanford University in the mid-1960s by Thomas R. Kane. The applied mechanics professor had studied the ability of cats to spin their body mid-air so that they could securely land on their four paws. Kane would film a cat bouncing on a trampoline, study its movements, and then a gymnast in a spacesuit would try to reproduce the cat's movements on the trampoline.
Sascha Pohflepp's Camera Futura enables visitors to replicate the experiment. You are invited to wear a light space suit and jump on the trampoline while a camera captures your moves.
The energy stored in the trampoline's springs amplifies the power of our muscles, so that we can briefly launch ourselves and experience an instant of relative weightlessness when falling back to Earth. Camera Futura captures images from that very instant. These photos allow for a glimpse of our brief moment in a post-gravity world. In a sense, they are impressions of ourselves from one of many futures.
The Infinity Burial Project is an art project with an aim to help us accept the reality of our own death. It is also a very bold and practical alternative to current burial system. Once buried or cremated, our bodies do not just decompose and vanish, they also contribute to the deterioration of the environment by releasing the toxic pollutants that our bodies have accumulated over the course of the years: pesticides, preservatives and heavy metals such as lead and mercury.
Jae Rhim Lee has thus developed the Mushroom Death Suit, a burial suit infused with mushroom spores to assist the decomposition of human corpses. The outfit comes with capsules that contain infinity mushroom spores and other elements that speed decomposition and toxin remediation. Besides, an open source burial container, and a membership society devoted to the promotion of death awareness and acceptance and the practice of decompiculture (the cultivation of decomposing organisms).
Facial Weaponization Suite is a playful but also dark critique of the silent and gradual rise of the use of biometric facial recognition software by governments to monitor citizens.
Masks remain an effective tool to prevent identification technologies from capturing, analyzing, archiving and identifying our face. The use of mask also refers to social movements that use masks as a sign of protests. From the Zapatista rebels, to Pussy Riot, Anonymous, etc.
Brad Butler and Karen Mirza are presenting Deep State, a film scripted by science fiction author China Miéville. The film takes its title from the Turkish term "Derin Devlet," meaning "state within the state," and tells a story about the representation of political struggle, moments of crisis, solidarity, schisms and oppression.
The whole film, which overlays archive protest footage and performed interludes, is online:
At first, i wasn't sure what to make of it but, as the images rolled on, i started connecting them to what was going on in Ukraine at the time of the press view of the show and i realized that at this very moment, maybe we still have a choice: we can be the people who raise their heads, protest and attempt to take some control back or we can be the people who are blindly herded into a society of control.
Also part of the show: Nation Estate, a "vertical solution to Palestinian statehood."
A couple of weeks ago i spent yet another fruitful afternoon in Brighton for the Critical Exploits. Interrogating Infrastructure event.
The day was part of The Lighthouse's ongoing exploration of the social and political implications of technological infrastructures. The curatorial research started in 2012 with the exhibition Invisible Fields in Barcelona and continued at The Lighthouse with exhibitions by James Bridle, Mariele Neudecker, Trevor Paglen, etc.) The last event brought together artists and critical engineers Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev, critical designer Tobias Revell, and activists from the Open Rights Group for a day of talks and workshops.
Critical Exploits showed how a new generation of artists, designers and engineers are taking a highly critical approach to the development and use of the engineered systems and infrastructures that we increasingly rely on for daily life.
This post is going to focus mostly on Oliver and Vasiliev's presentation which looked at black boxes in the context of infrastructures. The talk is already on youtube but i thought i'd sum up some of the observations that the artists made and add links to the artworks and documents they mentioned while they were in Brighton.
Their presentation started with a quote from Bruno Latour. Talking about blackboxing, the sociologist wrote that When a machine runs efficiently, when a matter of fact is settled, one need focus only on its inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity. Thus, paradoxically, the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become.
Typical modern devices and infrastructures function (and actually also look) like black boxes, they are far more opaque than they are transparent.
If you look at a gramophone, you'll notice that its inner working is displayed externally. An iPod nano is at the other end of the spectrum, it is completely opaque. We can't actually explain what the many parts inside the device do. And maybe even what they do behind out back. As these devices get smaller, we get even less clue about their inner working. We cannot say we know the devices inside our pockets.
Our understanding of internet infrastructure is similarly foggy. Most of the time, our contact with it is clustered around firefox, safari, explorer, etc. Most users cannot see beyond their web browser. And there is indeed much misconception about the internet. Julian Oliver mentioned a quote he heard at the Chaos Communication Congress where someone said that the only people who talk about 'users' are drug dealers and software developers.
Very few people can actually give an intelligible answer to the question "What is a computer network?" Most people have no problem describing how a postcard goes from its sender to recipient but they are at a loss when it comes to explaining how emails are exchanged. In fact, the Oliver and Vasiliev described the Internet as a deeply misunderstood technology upon which we increasingly depend. Even the terminology used makes our understanding literally nebulous. Take the concept of 'the cloud'. A survey showed that the majority of Americans believe that cloud computing was affected by bad weather.
Another interesting fact their talk mentioned is that the net doesn't belong to the people as it is often assumed. If you have a look at the Submarine Cable Map, you quickly realize that most of these cables are privatized.
Vasiliev and Oliver take their distances from a traditional definition that sees engineering as the practical application of science to commerce or industry. Instead, they wrote, together with Gordan Savičić, a critical engineering manifesto which they regard as a frame for applied research and development that positions Engineering, rather than Art or Design, as primary within the creative and critical process.
The rest of their talk illustrates the manifesto using works of critical engineering. I'm going to simply write their titles down and link to the project pages but i'd encourage you to watch the video of the artists/critical engineers talk to get more background and comments on each work.
Don't miss the video documenting the other talk of the afternoon. Tobias Revell's talk portrayed current practices within critical design and the way the discipline can be used as an antagonist tool for provoking conflicts between set narratives, beliefs and ideologies for awareness, debate and alternate interpretation. The result is a lively and carefully curated inventory of all things Design Interactions at RCA.
I don't know why i didn't visit Suzanne Treister 's solo show at Annely Juda in London as soon as it opened. I guess i've been lazy and since the lazy is always rewarded, the show has been extended till 22 January, giving me another chance to see it.
In pure Treister fashion, In The Name Of Art and other recent works unwraps the extremely dense networks that tie together secret detention facilities run by the CIA, government control, mass surveillance technologies, military intelligence and counter-intelligence, drone operations that kill and drone operations that entertain the gallery-going crowd. You want to dismiss it as conspiracy theories but Snowden, Wikileaks, and human rights reports urge you to pay attention. At the risk of making you uncomfortable.
Much of Treister's recent work maps ways that human intelligence and military intelligence currently interact and work on each other. She explores how in a world increasingly determined by pervasive technologies and the demands of the military and security arms of government and state, new relations between the observer and the observed have been established and new subjectivities formed.
The work The Drone that Filmed the Opening of its own Exhibition did exactly what its title says. Treister brought a drone at the opening to film the exhibition and its visitors, highlighting the expanding role of UAVs in both military and civil life. The catalogue-newspaper accompanying the exhibition reminds us that the performance is far from being purely entertaining and anecdotic as military drones have killed between 3,500 and 5,000 people (and not all of them were 'combatants' as we know) since 2002.
Camouflage was probably the work that intrigued me the most. Treister sourced documents related to the U.S. Department of Defense's GIG and the NSA's PRISM surveillance programmes. Both programmes are for use in times of war, in crisis and in peace. Treister further obstructed the content of leaked graphics from internal power-point presentations about PRISM by painting patterns over them.
The abstract black shapes of CIA Black Sites are supposed to silhouette secret CIA interrogation centres. The drawings directly reference Malevich's Suprematism compositions to evoke the CIA's support of abstract art in the 1950s while the title of the work alludes to the secret prisons where terrorism suspects are held, interrogated and kept out of the view of the public and the law.
The KGB works in the ART FOR OLIGARCHS series (a series which also includes a stunning STASI Wallpaper that recall the ubiquity of pre-digital surveillance and which i was silly enough not to photograph) points to the overlap between people who were powerful in the security agencies of the USSR and the new turbo-capitalist powerbrokers and the Post-Soviet oligarchy that the Western contemporary art market has become so dependent on.
In each orchis militaris flower, the sepals and side petals are gathered together to form a pointed "helmet" (whence it gets its name). By this point you will probably see evil and machination everywhere, so please do let your imagination run wild.
emeyefive looks at the life of Stella Rimington, the first head of the British Intelligence agency MI5 whose name was made known to the general public. The name of the director of the agency had so far been regarded as a state secret but an investigative campaign by the New Statesman and The Independent newspaper published photos of her, forcing MI5 to roll out on a new programme of transparency.
Suzanne Treister, In The Name Of Art and other recent works is open until 22 January 2014 at Annely Juda Fine Art in London. DON'T MISS IT!
Previous post about Treister's work: HEXEN.
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.