Netless Dead Drops

For Neural # 38

Since last autumn a new tactic, the Dead Drops, started appearing in spots of public spaces in several cities around the world. First in New York and soon after in Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Brussels, Belgrade, Rome and many other places, USB flash drives could be found cemented into walls, buildings, bridges, benches, pillars or other surfaces of the urban surrounding. The USB sticks might at first glance look like objet trouvé of our times weirdly placed in the city environment but they are not. They are everyday objects that are there to be used; inhabitants can connect their laptops to them and drop or/and take files.  Initiated as a project by the Berlin based artist Aram Bartholl during his residency in New York’s Eyebeam, the Dead Drops are actually a statement about the right to the free distribution of data. In the era of cloud computing on one hand and of leaks’ punishment on the other, the project defends data as important commons that can possibly also connect us to the notion of a new common urban territory.

Dead drops create networks between people and landmarks. The locations chosen as well as the content of the USB sticks depend on a dispersed collectivity of citizens who give and take according to their needs. Bartholl’s initiative playfully expands, updates and also reverses the use of the dead drops as it was mostly known. Originally connected to espionage, dead drops were used to describe the locations where items or information were being exchanged secretly without requiring people to meet. It was a clandestine action between agents who were often also leaving signals to notify one another where the new dead drop is. Bartholl developed this practice to a tactic, open to inhabitants of any place in the world who wish to embrace it, use it and reproduce it in order to share information anonymously and locally. The signals to find the dead drops are accordingly replaced by an online database and a map available that not only provide info for the dead drops’ locations in a city but they also reflect the growing network of its nodes and initiators http://canadian…nada/.

Dead drops proposes an active offline peer to peer structure through sharing non-removable USB sticks. And it is not the only one…USB sticks have been used as a ground to work on and to critically play with also by Dmitri Kleiner and the telekommunisten network. The project deadSwap is described as a “social experiment” which explores the possibilities of a creation of an offline peer to peer organisation. In deadSwap, participants pass a USB stick from one to another through an anonymous SMS gateway privately, escaping any form of control. No identities and contact details are known and no one knows in advance what files might be transferred. deadSwap just like dead drops are based on two very ambiguous features for the networked reality: anonymity and trust. We can’t know what kind of files have been dropped by users who are strangers. Anonymity is essential. It stands on the opposite side of the subjectification, of the continuous process of adding data to our social networks’ profiles. Do we trust the companies that have access to our online data more? Being anonymous, refusing the subjectification may actually thus constitute a mode of opposition and resistance against this aggregation and expropriation. As writer John Cunningham specifically writes while discussing anonymity in web 2.0 “If ‘the face’, generic potenzia, is appropriated as a commodity then might certain forms of clandestinity provide a (non)identity that escapes the faciality of capital and allows potenzia to appear?”. #The potenzia, the posse, the potentiality Cunningham highlights, refers to Agamben and to the post operaist school of thought, as the prerequisite for any resistance and opposition.  The possibilities of the multitude are in the very center of this line of thought and in the very core of the internet reality also.

“The internet is dead” the deadSwap statement firmly mentions and “peer-to-peer is now driven offline and can only survive in clandestine cells.”   Offline, anonymous and to the streets… peer to peer tactics hit the road reclaiming the potentialities of the networks’ participants when they escape commercialization, exploitation and control. Nothing is obligatory and noone gets profit in the peer to peer conditions proposed. “We don’t need the Internet – the magic can happen anywhere”… It’s worth remembering here the Pirate Bay’s statement when the Pirate Kiosk was built in 2009. The kiosk was installed anonymously in Weimar’s Kiosk of Contemporary Art and it offered an offline copy of the Pirate Bay reachable only locally through a wifi service around it. Access to data was given only to the ones who were in the neighbourhood but the system was not closed. On the contrary, guidelines were available for the ones who might have wanted to build their own kiosk to expand the diffusion of information. The statement was becoming clear: the value of sharing is not depending on the web, but rather on user’s disposition.

How far can the digital multitude’s potentialities go? Danja Vasiliev thought of a step further as he proposed a netless structure built on a city’s transportation system. There is no internet in Netless of course. The idea is that connecting and exchanging information can be possible through small low power wireless transponder that work as nodes attached to city vehicles or to citizens themselves! Every time two nodes appear in the same vicinity, a wireless link is established and data can be shared ! This way, in a few hours going around the city a lot of data can be shared and gathered by each node. Nodes can be attached in cars, trams, trolleys, trains, buses but there is no funding plan to collaborate with a transport company and it does not seem to be the best scenario. To avoid commercialization, the artist is encouraging people to start building their own nodes and take them along in their everyday travel. Intriguing and challenging, this parasitic anamorphic structure takes peer to peer to the traffic of the city. “Revolution starts on the streets” Vasiliev says adding that it s now about time to think of our own communication strategies in order take the situation in our hands.#

Do these new communication strategies, as they are being described, constitute also exit strategies of our times? While discussing disconnection are they pointing an exodus for the digital multitude? Symbolic or literal, the ideas and initiatives mentioned do have a liberating character; they seem to be driven by a force that can break the norms of the affective and immaterial labour currently ruling the internet. The new force, the new emerging ethic they rely on , could be described as a mixture and a development of Himanen’s Hacker Ethic# and Kane’s Play Ethic# together. Creativity, opposition and playfulness seem to meet to allow the possibilities of sharing and exchanging to grow and last in time. The networked reality has grown and so have many users within it. The cognitariat is not only a prosumer precariat as it retains the right of disobedience, resistance, exodus.  But to succeed in such a direction, as Bifo has interestingly noted “disobedience means an autonomy not only with respect to the rules but also to the motivations and expectations of life.” #

Can we stop expecting a lot from systems that expropriate our disposition, potentialities and expectations? The point is not to disconnect –all the disconnection initiators are still on the web anyway-,  neither to only become conscious about it – we do know what happens- but rather to remember where the potentiality lies and to be able provoke changes through it . There’s no need to go anywhere. As Negri and Hardt have written “We can pursue a line of flight while staying right here, by transforming the relations of production and mode of social organization under which we live.”