As part of the 2016 Crypto Design Challenge, organised by MOTI (Museum of the Image, Breda) and Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, I developed and facilitated a Deep Web workshop on October 6 and 7 in collaboration with Shirley Niemans. With a group of 16 artists, researchers and designers from various Dutch design and art schools, we worked on new visualisations of the Deep Web, exploring topics such as privacy (and therefore crypto) as a collective issue.
The Deep Web?
The Deep Web evokes images of an underworld that cannot bear the light of day. Yet this hidden realm contains an estimated 96% of all the content to be found circulating online. The first international Crypto Design Challenge is a shout out to artists, designers, researchers and visionaries to dive in and create new images of the Deep Web. The Deep Web’s iceberg has proven to be a powerful metaphor to visualise the distinction between the Surface Web, Deep Web and Dark Web. But it tells a story of the web from a very particular perspective: it defines the web in terms of what the great search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo) can or cannot do. Defining the web on the basis of a handful of tech giants seems limited and moreover prevents us from understanding other technologies that may provide fruitful alternatives in terms of freedom, privacy and democracy.
Documentaries such as Deep Web (about black Market Silk Road) and popular reporting has spread the idea of the deep web as a hotspot for mainly criminal activity, whereas the deep web also consists of eg. password protected areas of the web such as subscription based journals, medical records, the backend of your blog and so on. Moreover, the ‘extra hidden’ deep web like onion pages and I2P are used extensively by journalists, human rights activists and whistleblowers to protect their identity and in many cases, their anonymity and safety, and those of others. Can we shine a different light on these webs by creating alternative imagery that helps to demystify the workings, opportunities and implications of the various interlinking technologies that make up the web(s)?
The four groups developed their own particular view and shed a light on some aspects of the deep web and related issues. Their ideas were executed using paper engineering techniques at Makers Lab, the makerspace of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. Nicola Romagnoli, who participated and then wrote this eloquent reflection on the workshop summarised the results and process nicely: “a coherent theme that emerged throughout the paper assemblages was an emphasis towards diminishing the digital binary between Deep/Surface in which the Deep Web is reduced as a ‘technological other.’ Each project attempted to integrate the constitutive relations between the Deep and Surface Web by exploring the differing functionalities and privileges each network offers. This mutual functionality was reinforced by the playful interactivity of each project, which invited viewers to engage and manipulate the paper engineering.” I was very pleased to see that all groups returned in the weeks after the workshop to finalise their projects and make them picture-perfect for submission. Two of the projects – The Breathing Web and The Web Game were nominated for the award and shown at the Crypto Design Show in Paradiso.
The Breathing Web (nominated!)
By Julia Laporte, Jonas Althaus, Roos du Pree and Carlo Ter Woord, is an paper cryptographic work containing controversial quotes that represent 6 categories of resistance to established powers that can be identified on the deep web including: resistance to…
By using the orange ‘key cards’, the viewer will be able to decrypt the code and understand its full meaning, revealing complete quotes. “The Dark Net breathes. It is vast. And it can be as good and as evil as its users.”
The Flora and Fauna of the Internet
By Martina Huyng and Ingrid Woudwijk reveals the bots, viruses, algorithms and other non-human creatures, of the web, that go about their own tasks autonomously. Sometimes the internet feels like an entirely new ecosystem that is not inherently natural a habitat for humans to be in. This project visualizes the main agents and characters of the internet as multiple living organisms. All these creatures are represented through icons of simple and humorous metaphors, i.e. cookies and trackers as little “stalkers”, or surveillance programs as vacuum cleaners (mindlessly sucking up all data) or bots (only able to perform exact functions and tasks given) as parrots (that can also only speak what it has been taught and nothing else). This visualization aims to break down and depict autonomous actors of the internet in a comprehensible way. Hence by turning the gears, the visitor can explore how these creatures behave on the three different levels of the internet starting with the Clear Web, then the Deep Web and eventually the Dark Web.
The Web Game (nominated!)
by Melani de Luca, Gianluca Monaco, Camilo Cezar and Arantxa Gonlag is about finding your way through the web while avoiding the negative sides to the specific area of the web you are standing in. Playing the game you will start seeing the difference within privacy and security between the different areas, whilst realising that the web is one big unity instead of three different layers.
The project is realised both in an analogue version and a digital version to play with the different ways of experiencing the web. The interactive project is inspired by the 90’s windows computer game ‘Minesweeper’. In their version of the game, the mines reflect the bad sides to the web by use of emojis. Traveling through the different versions of the web you will find different icons that can either keep you anonymous – in the dark web – or infect your privacy when looking through the surface web. By coming across these mines you will find not only the negative sides to the different areas of the web, but also what makes these places within the web positive.
Your web home (in progress)
by Orla Canavan, Jennifer Veldman, Nicola Romagnoli and Pantea Razzaghi represents and demystifies anxieties around web technologies using the metaphor of property and feeling at home. You feel comfortable in your own home, in your neighbourhood, where you know your neighbours, the code of conduct, where and how to find things and how to build relationships. As you venture away from your familiar surroundings, inevitably you will feel a little out of place, not knowing how to act, how to find things, who to trust and how to make sure you stay safe. With time though, new places also start to feel familiar. From a different perspective: areas of regeneration often were once considered unsafe or unsavoury neighbourhoods, these perceptions change as people get more familiar, and as more people start hanging out in these places. Processes of ‘othering’ (technologies, people, places) have strong effects on our emotions and perceptions and thereby color how we view and evaluate parts of the world and parts of the web.
The workshop process:
During the two-day workshop, we produced tangible and visual metaphors that can help extend our understanding of the Deep Web beyond the image of the iceberg. We explored these web(s) from a variety of perspectives with the help of speakers Patricia de Vries, who discussed visual modalities of algorithmic anxiety, and how is algorithmic technology performed and contested by artists, designers and critics. Filmmaker/researcher/hacker Anthony van der Meer took us on a guided tour of the Deep Web, showing us how to find our way beyond the gardens of Google. The many alternatives in finding content, hardware and communities shattered any idea of the iceberg and started to reveal the multiplicities of web technologies that make up the web. A topic for discussion was when one knows enough to say anything about the Deep Web. The main conclusion was that we can still propose alternative imagery and metaphors to explain these concepts and put them up for discussion. Even if a work-in-progress, generating a multiplicity of views and understandings, and critically taking apart existing mythologies and mental images about what the web is worth doing.
We went on to try to get rid of the domineering iceberg image and open our minds to other possible imagery. To this end I used two formats to introduce noise into our existing visual associations with web issues. In the first round, we used the “Networks” exercise from the Conditional Design Workbook by Luna Maurer, Jonathan Puckey, Roel Wouters and Edo Paulus. Conditional design is a collaborative design method that foregrounds process over product, as design strategy it is defined by a set of rules to create drawings collaboratively. The Networks exercise lets groups of 4 create very unexpected diagrams about web related topics.
It’s quite hard not to think of a blue elephant, or an iceberg for that matter. The brain just keeps coming back to that image no matter how hard you try to avoid thinking about it. To this end I tried to come up with a method to pull us out of a given visual track. What I call a visual straightjacket is basically a method that turns around our normal ways of visualising information: with this method the visual starting point is already there, and you have to use whatever information is already there in the image to explain your concept/topic/issue. The random elements that are there are really helpful in forging new visual imagery that has nothing to do with existing imagery. I developed a second exercise where I gave participants a random composed semi-abstract image (in this case photographic art works by Amsterdam-based artist Popel) and asked them to explain the deep web using this image, by drawing and writing on it to explain what elements represent what. This lead to very interesting results and very surprising new ways to explain elements, issues, technologies, relationships and dependencies between deep web technologies and their users.
Atlas vs. Map or: multitudes of perspectives vs. grand narratives
After this preparatory work we teamed everyone up and started working on incomplete and deliberately large glossaries of all the terms that might relate to the deep web and issues it may touch. Following that, we worked with the teams to help them form a very specific perspective on the Deep Web. We tried to stay away from the grand ‘universal’ narratives, but instead focused on telling very particular stories about humans, technology and power. The idea being that you can draw a world map and say this is the world and you would be correct, but not very explicit about the fact that that world map is a geographical representation of the borders of the earth and its opposition to the sea, for example. And that a choice for Greenwich as the center point of the map is a highly political one stemming from 1884. Alternatively, an atlas provides a multitude of perspectives (geographical, economical, religious, political, climatic) that together make up the image of what something is and how it could be represented. The outcomes of this workshop can be seen as contributions to an eventual atlas of the deep web.