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Points of Departure: notes on online space

Internal Affairs: notes on online space

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[written pre-Event, footnoted post-Event]

Photo courtesy the author.
Photo courtesy the author.

A defining feature of our age is information in surplus. As a consequence, governments today are faced with the torrent of digital actions of their citizens; and the prevailing issue of how to capture this resource and harness its potential power. Contributing in real-time to this volume of information is our ever-increasing online presence that leaves a traceable record for algorithms to evaluate. Our online presence too defines our age, where both existence and time is experienced daily as layered and multiple.

Online spaces are currently our primary public spaces.

The value placed on these two elements is illustrated by the government of the United States’ (U.S.) peculiar lengths to acquire this data in recent times.

In 2013, it was revealed through leaked National Security Agency (NSA) documents that the U.S. government was capturing and storing its citizens’ and non-citizen’s online data at an extraordinary rate. The legal framework created to facilitate this meta-trawling of information whilst simultaneously upholding the constitutional right to privacy owed to U.S. citizens underlines the prevailing contemporary suspicion that we, as citizens, are mutable in state and paradoxes are a given.

In this new situation, our online presence is now relied upon to communicate with other online presences. We can only experience community through online interaction. Our online presence and its affiliated actions are not affected by our physical bodies’ potential vulnerability to viral attack. Access to online information via privately used devices assists our physical health in this time of The Event. Those without this online privilege are at a physical disadvantage, leading to questions regarding internet access as a social right.

The way in which this mass surveillance was legally legitimised is controversial. A person (or more specifically a person’s online presence) was required to be deemed as foreign to the U.S. in order for the NSA to legally capture and store their data. To be foreign in the eyes of the NSA, characteristics such as languages spoken and online contact (however cursory) to another user who was at least 51% foreign (as determined by NSA algorithm) were given precedence.

This algorithm-based citizenship determination is the basis for the Jus Algoritmi title described by John Cheney- Lippold to differentiate this method from the common Jus Soli (citizenship by birth) or Jus Sanguini (citizenship by blood). See ‘Jus Algoritmi: How the National Security Agency Remade Citizenship’, International Journal of Communication 10, 2016, 1721- 1742

As such, a user’s perceived citizenship could be quantified, and if the algorithm determined a 51% confidence the user was foreign, their data, including emails, search histories, speech patterns and online purchases, could be legally captured and stored.

A person's status as either foreigner or citizen was constantly reassessed as a user's online data constantly updated. This contemporary example of a simultaneous citizen and foreigner, an individual simultaneously protected and surveilled, exemplifies the slippages that have been amplified by each of us existing online.

As workplaces embrace online platforms to continue meetings and business, personal online accounts are required to facilitate this progress. Private/public and professional/personal spheres are colliding.

In a legal sense, a user’s citizenship was akin to a temperamental lightbulb, flickering on and off without discernible pattern or rhythm. It is this flickering between identities, both at a self/citizen and self/user level that we exist within at all times.

These additional layers of existence reveal themselves slowly; it is paradoxically when we notice their absence that they are most pronounced. It is for this reason that spaces which allow for the shedding of these strange skins are becoming increasingly vital in this age. Artist-run spaces, public libraries, temples, public gardens, art galleries and national parks are all primary examples of spaces that only operate when the self-as-citizen and self-as-user layers are dismantled and is why they are of such societal value.

All spaces previously mentioned are either closed or have limited access and at the time of writing public gatherings of more than two people are discouraged. In response, galleries, classes and public programs have moved their content online, now competing with the pre-determined algorithms of their host sites (but hopefully disrupting and changing the regular traffic of content).

These spaces also offer a unique refuge from the accelerated and instantaneous experience of time singular to our era.

The temporal pace of a crisis is even faster and more layered than our usual experience. We are expected to make decisions faster and adjust to new rules and routines efficiently. Light-hearted responses made last week are insensitive the next. As such, this article, written a few months prior to The Event, requires revisions and updated ambiguities in the form of footnotes.

The internet has provided unprecedented information exchange; we can have a conversation with a person in another country without raising our voice.

Can we experience solitude online? Can we communicate solitude online?

The public spaces may integrate internet enabled technology but their foundation is based on experience that sits outside our accelerated temporality.

Communities, such as the art community, are dispersed and de-centralised without the regular roster of public gatherings for exhibition openings, artist talks and studio visits. This scattering of community will have long term effects.

The shedding of our exo-selves, as citizen and user, allows us in turn to monitor and critique our involvement in the collective citizen and user experience. Our ability to critique and humanise this system, in an age defined by its information surplus and layered existences, remains our strongest asset.

How do we critique the infrastructure of the online experience if it can only be communicated via itself?