You snap your laptop shut to leave the meeting, and suddenly you’re an island. There is no lingering, no chatter on the way to the subway stop, no knowing glances. You are alone. Physically away from cyberspace, your thoughts still remain within it. You think of misunderstandings—how internet connections lag, how face masks remove facial nuance, how your self-image fails to convey. You think of how virtual rooms nest within other rooms, how tabs multiply. You leave the house for work, selling commodities, educating, taking care of the sick—all for too little pay—enduring a constant fight-or-flight reaction to others nearby. Are you far enough away? Has your mask slipped under your nose? How do you avoid killing someone? Yet at the same time, more than ever before, you want to connect. You open your laptop again.
Our third issue of Take Shape, “Cyberspace,” stews in this tension between digital alienation and community building—a timestamped moment and a timeless concern. Mixing written essays and interactive virtual spaces, we aim to show that in cyberspace, critique and cultural production speak in multiple formats simultaneously, producing a shared discourse. What passes as online criticism tends toward punchy one-liners. These longform pieces instead take a slower approach; they range in tone from the journalistic and the academic, to the polemical and the satirical. With our first online issue, we hope to challenge science fiction writer William Gibson’s assertion in 1984 that the internet is always apart from reality itself, “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators.” Intersecting with colorblind multiculturalism, early mythologies imagined the internet as an egalitarian sphere, a place where a user’s identity is irrelevant, masked by an avatar. Such fantasies that obfuscate structural failures haven’t entirely disappeared today.
Digital inequality is in part due to physical infrastructure. Cyrus Peñarroyo presents us with a diagram outlining US policy on broadband access over the past few decades. He argues that technical, legal distinctions between who is “unserved” and who is “underserved” continues to limit internet access for many Americans. Rob Johnson undertakes a guerilla corrective to this inequality through his work with the group NYC Mesh. During the occupation of New York City Hall in the summer of 2020, NYC Mesh created a free internet connection for activists uploading testimony of their experiences. Penñarroyo and Johnson imagine a future where movement online—and in person—is not subject to policing and enforcement of the “normal” use of space.
Particularly during the pandemic, cyberspace has become a physical place, as real to us as most of the “real” places where we used to spend time. Genevieve Walker interweaves conversations with three contemporary poets—Ada Limón, Peter Gizzi, and Tommy Pico. She argues that the literary technique of enjambment is key to understanding the current links between isolation, digitality, and poetics. Switching from the internet’s alienation to its community building, Ian Erickson enters Second Life to talk with the Sublime Reverend Goddess Theyna Theti-Sheri. Standing on a virtual platform in the sky, the two discuss the virtual recreation of Other World Kingdom, a woman-ruled BDSM micronation. During its existence, the virtual sixteenth-century castle was a sphere for alternative sexual practices. Niche online communities need not exist in immersive metaverses, but can simply exist in HTML and CSS. Web editor Benjamin Good interviews internet artist Laurel Schwulst, who creates online structures that center process over product. Together they ask: if cyberspace is something like a home to us, then what kind of structure do we want it to be, and how can we design it collaboratively?
While there is some room for avant garde practices online, tech monopolies surveil cyberspace and profit from the collection and sale of personal data. Similarly, law enforcement uses cell phones to digitally track people’s movements in real time. How do we as users organize against such forces? Sanoja Bhaumik attends protests for racial justice and wades through the clashing forces of US state observation, counter-surveillance strategies, and the lessons of surveillance art. She concludes that the boldest protest images turn the lens back onto the state, embracing a multiplicity of bottom-up perspectives. Annie Lloyd also sees the dangers of top-down technologies. Waiting at the bus stop, she considers how data tracking is used as a band aid for ailing public transit, amidst the dual fissures of austerity and the COVID-19 pandemic. Indranil Choudhury looks at the labor behind data, arguing that the apparently seamless operation of the digital cannot be separated from the immigrant workers that keep it running. He interrogates how the H-1B visa has legalized the exploitation of workers, pitting marginalized communities against one another to the advantage of the elite. Critiquing the gig economy, Jenny Rodenhouse’s interactive “RingGYM” app presents a fictional service that allows users to participate in workouts facilitated by trainers who perform routines through the fish-eye lens of a Ring doorbell camera. Ultimately, it’s a satirical, darkly comical piece about the lattice of relationships between “smart home” surveillance technologies, the police state, and the growing dependence of the privileged on the services of delivery people.
Taking our experiences of the internet seriously also empowers our use of it. By traversing the internet daily, we are carving paths into our personal cyber landscapes. Julianne Aguilar takes us to the world of Vana’diel, where Final Fantasy XI players once thronged in the thousands, but which now sits largely empty. Yet she can’t leave it behind, perhaps because she’s been there “far longer than the real me has lived in any one place since childhood.” Sam Moore also feels a bittersweet nostalgia online, albeit for a past they never lived through personally. Seeking seminal gay films from the 1970s, they learn that in the far reaches of the internet—among grainy porn clips and fringe repositories—live glimmers of a shared history. Transitioning from a queer past to a testimony of the queer present, Teresa Braun’s “Virtual Queerality” functions as an interactive nightclub-turned-gallery that walks visitors through the experiences and creative work of five trans, nonbinary, and/or gender nonconforming artists. The interviews contained within interrogate the relationship between gender and the performance of a plurality of selves, online and IRL.
Do pixels, servers, and undersea fiber optic cables add up to a consensual hallucination? What is the internet made out of, and who is its presumed audience? Thuto Durkac-Somo looks at the formation of the “ideal” internet user, unearthing the history of military research and video game development. He argues that the user is inherently a top-down, institutional construction. Diving into cyberspace itself, Marielle Ingram theorizes that the internet is flat, teetering, and full of junk. Like an ocean folding into itself over and over, the texture of cyberspace is ungraspable—neither striated nor smooth. Lydia Jessup also examines the pop culture flotsam of the internet, through a tour of the online social space VRChat. Along the way, she speaks with users about why they use VRChat, what social connections they make through it, and how they feel about its eventual obsolescence. droqen’s “Yrkkey’s Paradise” looks at how virtual spaces offer both a shackle and an escape. In essence, it is a game about a raccoon who wants to build a computer that grants them access to a whimsical, gamified universe. Concerned with digital dualism, it searches for a sense of belonging in a world split between reality and virtuality.
Finally, two pieces examine the slick, neoliberal language of digital renderings. In a work of fiction, Colleen Tuite and John O’Keefe write about two stateless siblings who make a living creating 3D models of plants for shady contractors. Tuite and O’Keefe imagine what goes wrong when precarious digital artists cannot maintain control over their work. Looking specifically to real estate renderings, Stalgia Grigg’s “spherical projection” walks players through an infinite, randomly generated labyrinth of eerie luxury apartment interiors, a dystopian critique of the horrors of gentrification and displacement. It draws from a vast reservoir of 360-degree photographs of Harlem apartments culled from software used for virtual real estate tours.
How might we use cyberspace to reinvent and challenge existing mythologies, rather than perpetuate them? These contributors suggest that the solutions to structural inequalities cannot be found in the promise of ever-evolving technologies. Cyberspace is often the office we are forced to inhabit for work, the area we are denied access to along race and class lines, and the holding cell where our every move is tracked by law enforcement with the help of corporations. In order to seek an alternative way, we must look not to better algorithms or more data, but to the artist and activist communities already attempting to forge those paths. We know that at its best, cyberspace is a community space, a free studio available to all, and a public space hosting the decade’s best party to date. Come join us there, in a new place.
Nolan Boomer is an editor and bookseller. They live in Berkeley and write about the built environment, media, and cultural exchange in the Western Hemisphere. They are a founding editor of Take Shape.
Cole Cataneo is a Master of Architecture candidate, an editor of Rumor, and the interviews editor of Take Shape.
Julia Llinas Goodman is a writer, editor, and radio producer based in Brooklyn. Their work focuses on the intersections between public space, technology, and civil rights. They are a founding editor of Take Shape.
Paolo Yumol makes music as Goose Pimple and occasionally likes to make films and small games. They are the virtual spaces guest editor of Take Shape.
Julianne Aguilar is an artist, essayist, and speculative fiction writer. Her work is inspired by the internet, video games, and semi-competent portrayals of such in pop culture. She lives and works in New Mexico. juliannes.website
Shireen Alia Ahmed is a poet, illustrator, and video artist from Toronto. She is currently based in Brooklyn, NY.shireen.guru
Sanoja Bhaumik is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, NY. She is interested in visual culture, technology, and politics.
Teresa Braun (they/them) is an artist from Manitoba, Canada based in New York City. They create drag performances, videos, and interactive installations that blend queer theory, pop culture, and heteronormative archetypes in order to challenge binary notions of gender. teresabraun.com
Indranil Choudhury is a media artist from India. He's a graduate student at Hunter College's Integrated Media Arts program and teaches in the school's Department of Film & Media Studies.
droqen is an independent videogame designer based in Toronto. Recent droqen works include a manual for a videogame that doesn't exist (Q1: Void); and a simulation of hanging out with a bunch of birds while they learn how to play a children's game (Tic-Tac-Crow).droqen.com
Thuto Durkac-Somo is a writer based in Brooklyn. He is a recent graduate of Columbia GSAPP’s Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practices program. thuto.site
Ian Erickson is a Master of Architecture candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the founding editor of Disc.ianerickson.space
Stalgia Grigg builds computer simulations that explore the relationship between ideology and solidarity. Their work takes the form of indeterminate cinema; often depicting agents and avatars of revolutionary will, animated and shaped by neural networks, undergoing the process of ‘training’ during the exhibition of the work. stalgiagrigg.name
Marielle Ingram is a writer based in New York City. She’s interested in relationships between technical images, labor, globalization, and capitalism, as articulated by contemporary artists.
Lydia Jessup is an artist-researcher and public-interest technologist based in Brooklyn. Her work stems from a fascination with our complex technosocial and civic relationships both online and IRL. She currently works as a research resident at NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program and as a creative technologist on the New York Times Research & Development team.lydiajessup.me
Rob Johnson is an activist and engineer based in New York City. In addition to his involvement NYC Mesh, he has spent time working in public transit, teaching math, and working in local politics. He is currently pursuing a master's in Urban Studies at CUNY.
Annie Lloyd is a PhD student and writer currently based in Oakland, CA. annieblloyd.com
Sam Moore is a writer, artist, and one of the founding editors of Third Way Press. Their poetry and experimental essays have been published in print and online with the LA Review of Books, Brixton Review of Books, and in the Pilot Press anthology Modern Queer Poets, among other places. Their first book, All my teachers died of AIDS, was published by Pilot Press in 2020.
John O’Keefe is a landscape architect and principal of Sealand Design in Providence, Rhode Island. He leads the digital visualization and fabrication labs in the School of Architecture, Art, and Historic Preservation at Roger Williams University, where he also teaches. John is a certified horticulturist and coastal invasives manager.
Cyrus Peñarroyo is a designer and educator whose work examines architecture’s entanglement with contemporary media and digital culture. He is a partner in EXTENTS and an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning.extents.us
Jenny Rodenhouse (b.Tulsa OK 1984) is a media artist, designer, and researcher in Los Angeles, California. Her practice investigates how the interface has become a natural habitat. Using her background in software design, she makes alternative interfaces for this emergent screen-based lifestyle to challenge the assumed corporate realities we exist within. jennyrodenhouse.com
Matt Romein is an artist and performer working at the intersection of live performance, generative computer art, and multi-media installation. Originally trained as an actor, he has worked in NYC's downtown theater and dance community as a sound and video designer while also making his own technology-centric live performances.
Colleen Tuite is a designer and writer. She co-directs the experimental landscape studio Other Fields and lives in New York City.
Sam Vernon is an artist who combines xeroxed collages, photographs, paintings and sculptural components in an exploration of personal narrative, identity and historical memory. She teaches as an assistant professor in the Printmedia and Fine Arts Programs at California College of the Arts (CCA) and as a visiting assistant professor at the Studio Arts Program at Bard College.samvernon.com
Genevieve Walker is a writer and editor based, for now, in Maine. Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, GQ, Bon Appétit, The Pitchfork Review, Real Life, Tablet, Guernica, and elsewhere.genevievewalker.com
Terms of Service: The Legalese of Digital Redlining
by Cyrus Peñarroyo
Terms of Service: The Legalese of Digital Redlining
by Cyrus Peñarroyo
High-speed internet is an essential part of daily life, a reality made painfully noticeable by the current coronavirus pandemic. Yet millions of Americans still have inadequate access to this technology. This diagram shows how the funding and deployment of the internet’s physical infrastructure is largely dependent on the federal government’s ever-changing definition of who qualifies as “unserved” and “underserved” by broadband internet access. Over the last two decades, there have been disagreements over the way broadband is mapped and classified. Competing partisan interests are invested in positioning broadband as either a public utility or a private amenity, and as either a “telecommunications service” or an “information service.”
Our digital and political systems are complexly intertwined, and the physical “stuff” of the internet—the placement of fiber-optic cables, servers, and routers—is ultimately governed by bureaucratic interests. When politicians emphasize geography and population density to describe network deficiencies, the government focuses on helping private companies expand their broadband infrastructure to unserved rural areas, places where people have little or no internet access. However, this also shifts focus away from historically excluded urban areas, disregarding the needs of underserved low-income residents who may have few affordable internet options at their disposal. While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) aims to increase Americans’ access to broadband, this diagram reveals conflicts between governing bodies over who is more deserving of this technology, further exacerbating the rural–urban divide that characterizes the nation’s current political landscape.
Guerilla Hotspot: Internet and the Occupation of New York City Hall
by Rob Johnson
Guerilla Hotspot: Internet and the Occupation of New York City Hall
by Rob Johnson
In late June a group of activists took up residence at New York’s City Hall Park. In the following days their numbers grew into the hundreds, and their demonstration attracted national attention. I joined the encampment on the second day and ended up staying for eight more. After protesting daily for nearly a month, I was excited to see an escalation of tactics and a specific, time-sensitive demand: to defund the NYPD by at least $1 billion in the city’s upcoming budget. Ultimately, our demands were answered in name only, but the reverberations of the broader movement will no doubt have impacts for years to come.
One of the stated goals of the City Hall protest was to draw a connection between the overpolicing of homeless New Yorkers and the broader racial justice movement. The protest was led by Vocal-NY, a nonprofit focused specifically on this intersection. Much of the language and action at City Hall centered around serving and celebrating everyone in the space. Food, shelter, and community were available to all, from housed New Yorkers passing through, to unhoused residents already living in the area. In addition to providing general support, I arrived at the space with the goal of adding internet access as a shared resource for the encampment. As a volunteer organizer with the nonprofit NYC Mesh, I have been building a community-owned, community-operated network in the city for several years. NYC Mesh’s focus on democratized internet infrastructure shares much with the broader movement’s emphasis on mutual aid and collectively rethinking public services through a racial justice and restorative justice lens.
In the United States, the connections between policing of Black communities and policing to protect capitalist interests run deep. The first public police force in the country protected commercial assets in Boston, and in the South, police were first introduced in the form of slave patrols, an institution explicitly intended to enforce racial hierarchy. Police forces in both cases patrolled public spaces. In the two decades since the 9/11 attacks, the policing of public space has moved into the digital realm as well. The NYPD now commands a vast network of surveillance cameras and has been known to employ “Stingrays” at anti-police protests—devices that record uniquely identifying information from all phones nearby. Additionally, New York is now home to two large surveillance-funded “free” Wi-Fi networks. In the context of racialized poverty, this means that nonwhite New Yorkers are disproportionately forced into nonconsensual surveillance to access resources that their white counterparts already enjoy. The question of who is tolerated in public space remains as much of an issue today as it was over a century ago.
In the modern-day United States, the hostility of public space is nowhere more evident than in Midtown and Lower Manhattan. Locals and tourists alike contend with lack of public restrooms, uninviting places to sit, and expensive food options. This is not merely the result of a simple accident or market pressure. Public policy keeps these places privatized. New York’s first land-use regulations in 1913 were explicitly designed, according to urban planner George McAneny, to prevent “unwholesome and dangerous” congestion of these very streets, keeping unseemly garment factories and their workers separate from new, pristine shopping districts like those on Fifth Avenue. A century later, real estate’s influence has only grown more powerful. Gentrified districts are designed from the ground up to accommodate wealth and consumption at the expense of nearly everything and everyone else.
When the zoning of these districts cannot sufficiently control behavior, other methods are used. Police and private security enforce anti-loitering laws, nightly park closures, and free speech restrictions, sometimes confining protest activity to designated “free speech zones.” Digital parallels exist too. Using free Wi-Fi often requires viewing advertisements or enduring time limits. A limited supply of public power outlets encourages casual, short-term use of resources but makes extended use frustrating and difficult. Omnipresent security cameras help with the prosecution of crimes, but they can also serve as a social deterrent, reminding those nearby to be on their best behavior. Even new “pedestrianized zones” and privately managed public plazas strategically deploy bumps and spikes on benches to discourage unhoused people from sleeping on them. While modern redesigns add convenience and beauty to the experiences of office workers, shoppers, and wealthier tourists, everyone behaving outside of the prescribed vision is left uncomfortable at best. At worst, they are threatened with surveillance and subjected to outright police violence. An objection to this theory of policing and space hierarchy has been a centerpiece of recent Black Lives Matter protests.
While functioning public Wi-Fi may not seem as important as functioning public space, the need for it is now clearer than ever. Sometime in the past two decades the internet has moved from a luxury “want” to an essential “need” for nearly everyone in our society. Since long before the pandemic, accessing banking, healthcare, and housing has been nearly impossible without email and a web browser. This harsh reality has kept many impoverished New Yorkers from accessing these resources at all. With the onset of COVID-19, the digital divide has only become more ruthless, leaving those without access at a severe disadvantage to work, apply for unemployment assistance, or access education. For those without regular access to a home with private Wi-Fi, the nature of publicly accessible Wi-Fi is hauntingly similar to that of other needs, like bathrooms, that are barely met in our current public sphere. Two major providers of free Wi-Fi in New York, Transit Wireless and Google-affiliate LinkNYC, have business models explicitly based on advertising and selling hyperlocal user data collected through their hotspots. While they claim to be providing a community-oriented service, these companies are projected to take in millions of dollars annually from these ventures.
Even the current model of private internet provision has trended heavily toward censorship and surveillance. Cellular companies routinely sell customer location data, and the repeal of net neutrality laws in late 2017 has already had measurable effects on the quality of video-streaming service from Netflix, Skype, and YouTube. The Black Lives Matter movement has been fueled by videos of police violence that have spread quickly across the globe on social media platforms. Livestreaming is crucial to this phenomenon—law enforcement often seizes phones from those arrested, making after-the-fact video evidence a risky proposition. Many of the protests themselves have been coordinated through social media too. Thus far social media companies have allowed the movement to flourish online, but there’s little stopping them from restricting this content in the future, or simply prioritizing other traffic.
By “occupying” a downtown public plaza as a form of protest, activists at City Hall highlighted the fact that “atypical” use of public space and resources has become criminalized, and that this criminalization has a disparate racial and economic impact. The form that the protest took helped to demonstrate that a different world was possible. Taking up residence in the park was about more than finding a suitable place to eat and sleep—it was about asserting the right to rethink and rebuild public space outside of the realm of policing and profit. Protesters tested the limits of this new space, creating systems to care for each other and provide for collective needs. Elaborate home-grown systems were quickly developed to provide protesters with food, shelter, bathrooms, and medical care. Soon other needs began to be met, including art making, community meditation, and a free library. Within a few days, a community Wi-Fi network was established as well.
Much like the protest itself, the community internet was more than a spontaneous creation. The Wi-Fi network was initiated and built at City Hall Park by members of NYC Mesh, which since 2012 has been building a decentralized, community-owned network that now serves several thousand people. Members share connections with each other using specially configured equipment mounted on their rooftops and windows. The entirely volunteer-run organization helps install hardware for new members and develops technology standards that have allowed the network to double in size year after year without too many growing pains.
The network is primarily concentrated in residential neighborhoods within Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Most members connect from the roofs of their small and medium-sized apartment buildings to one of six larger “hubs” on top of taller residential and commercial buildings. These hubs are linked to one of two “supernodes” where NYC Mesh connects with the wider internet. Unlike hubs or small residential buildings, these supernodes can only be located in a few very specific buildings, buildings where there is an internet exchange point where internet providers’ infrastructure interconnects. In a twist of fate, NYC Mesh’s first and most prominent supernode, known as “SN1,” is located about 1,400 feet from the protest site at City Hall.
The fact that this hub of internet infrastructure is located in close proximity to New York’s center of government power isn’t a grand conspiracy, but it isn’t an accident either. The City Hall area has been New York’s locus of government and technology for centuries. Thomas Edison’s first electrical distribution network was laid just to the southeast, and the Brooklyn Bridge touches down across the street. The now-abandoned City Hall station of New York’s first subway line sits directly beneath City Hall Park. Government and commercial interests have crucial phone and internet infrastructure located near them. Geographically concentrated technological infrastructure has been a powerful, if subtle, force.
Paradoxically, being close to a supernode does not guarantee an easy connection to the mesh. SN1’s location, near New York’s government and financial center, leaves it far from the residential areas that NYC Mesh typically serves. The infrastructure atop the building is geared toward extending the network to further-flung neighborhoods north and east of the supernode but not those to the south and west. These nearby areas are much less conducive to community internet as they are commercial districts, so there are fewer opportunities for a tenant to put a DIY internet antenna on the roof. This meant that the protest Wi-Fi installation would have to connect through a different nearby building instead.
One of two west-facing antennae on SN1 provides a point-to-point connection to the municipal office building across the street from City Hall. A local politician, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, has hosted a node in this building for over a year, but at the time of the protest, the equipment had been turned off. Getting this node turned back on took several days of coordination as the office building was technically closed due to the pandemic. However, once the office building’s node was back up, Wi-Fi at the protest site was a fairly simple extension of the office’s connection.
The Wi-Fi was heavily used almost immediately. Over the next week, at least several hundred devices connected. Phones and tablets represent one-time costs and are fairly ubiquitous even among the poorest New Yorkers. But the recurring cost of monthly data plans is prohibitive for many. For the protesters without such data plans, the Wi-Fi was much more than a luxury—it provided a communication lifeline. It was also important for organizers, making it possible for them to conduct their work on laptops rather than small, keyboardless phones. This helped them to type long messages, navigate complex spreadsheets, and send large files as they kept the occupation running smoothly and coordinated with the outside world. By the time the protest ended, Wi-Fi users had uploaded almost as much data as they had downloaded. This is highly unusual and not something present in any other part of the NYC Mesh network—normally, internet users download far more than they upload. This anomaly was likely due to protesters’ extensive livestreaming of police–protester interactions—a tactic that has become increasingly common in order to prevent police from destroying video evidence held on phones.
While the high upload-to-download ratio at City Hall may seem like a quirky afterthought, it’s illustrative of the generative nature of the current protest movement. The temporary world built in Lower Manhattan by the protesters was one full of art and ideas, sharing and creation. The network infrastructure to support such a movement requires a fundamentally different kind of internet than what most people have today. Commercial Wi-Fi, like modern public space, is geared toward consumption. Most residential internet providers tweak their equipment to provide fast download speeds at the expense of nearly all upload capacity. This version of the internet is tailored to be used exclusively for browsing Facebook and binging Netflix. Those who create and share content are faced with relatively slow upload speeds on even the fastest and most modern connections. Just as public space can discourage behaviors like sleeping outside and marching in protests, the physical fabric of the internet can make creation and information sharing less welcome.
For low-income New Yorkers, protesters, and community network builders, Lower Manhattan can be a hostile place. And yet this seat of political, financial, and technological power remains central to those passionate about rethinking our world. At first glance, open Wi-Fi may not seem as important as shelter, food, or bathrooms—needs that have always been universal. Yet in its relative infancy, the internet has become an essential component of participation in society. Who does and does not have access to the tools of information, coordination, and amplification determines who will have power and stake in our society going forward. A privately controlled, surveillance-funded network leaves us with worrying implications for our future; but an open, collectively-run alternative could help everyone freely access public space—both online and off.
FemDom: A Conversation with Sublime Reverend Goddess Theyna Theti-Sheri
by Ian Erickson
FemDom: A Conversation with Sublime Reverend Goddess Theyna Theti-Sheri
by Ian Erickson
Content warning: The following interview depicts the social exclusion of trans people, particularly trans women.
From 1996 to 2008, a micronation called the Other World Kingdom (OWK) occupied a renovated sixteenth-century castle in a rural part of the Czech Republic. The OWK was ruled, according to their founding charter, as an “absolutist slave monarchy on the basis of a Matriarchy.”1Opinions within the BDSM community differ on race play and whether white and non-Black Dominants and submissives should use terms like “slave” and “slave auction” to describe kink play. These terms are prevalent in many BDSM spaces, and their use often goes unquestioned, particularly in spaces that are mostly white and/or primarily controlled by white people. However, the dynamic is not so simple for many Black kinksters. Some people intentionally choose the terms “Dominant/submissive” rather than “Master/slave” in recognition of the racist legacy behind the latter terminology. Gender theorist Ariane Cruz has written extensively about the ways that race play can feel problematic and harmful in many contexts, but can also be a powerful tool of sexual reclamation for Black kinksters.
Men were “slaves” and the entire nation submitted to the designs of a single queen: Patricia the First. The ritual behaviors inside the OWK closely followed the practices of bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism (BDSM), banning penetrative sex acts themselves. Power lay in strict control without a gratifying release, a total surrender to the will of another in a space of mystery and pageantry. Paying visitors were known within the kingdom as “male slaves” and were escorted by “Sublime Ladies.” Men went to the kingdom to have themselves ritually undone through the strict theatrical control of their behavior by Queen Patricia the First and her women citizens.2Both the original OWK and its Second Life reconstruction adopted a binary view of gender that was limited to cis men and cis women, and largely excluded trans and nonbinary people. As Theyna discusses in this interview, while the online version of OWK occasionally allowed trans women to join, they were not welcomed in the space and didn’t make up a regular part of the OWK community. In addition, discriminatory practices such as voice verification likely prevented many women from joining in the first place.
After the physical kingdom closed, a group of fans and former citizens recreated its likeness and social structure virtually. This interview is with Sublime Reverend Goddess Theyna Theti-Sheri, the project manager of the OWK in Second Life (SL) replication project.3Second Life awards honorific custom usernames to popular users on the platform. Theyna Theti-Sheri was not Theyna’s original username. When she amassed more than ten-thousand followers, she was bestowed an honorific title and allowed to change her username to her real-life dominatrix name.
As curator of the Second Life project, Theyna collaborated with a group of Lady Senators and OWK slaves throughout the digital reconstruction process. This interview took place within Second Life, where my avatar—the game’s generic “male” skin that wears a seventies disco shirt and holds a boombox—was whisked away from the starting stage via an inworld teleport. From a platform in the sky, I spoke with her Demon Succubus avatar about architecture, gender, ritual, capital, and copyright in cyberspace.
How did you first learn about the OWK? Have you ever been to the physical OWK castle complex in the Czech Republic?
I was introduced to BDSM at a very early age, using a 300-baud modem and dialing into online services pre-broadband. I met people on a local online bulletin board and they invited me to a “munch.”4
A munch is a casual social gathering for people involved in or interested in BDSM.
Shortly after, I left for college, went to Minnesota, and received my first degree before returning to Florida, where I grew up. At that point I started to hang out with my friends again, learned more about the lifestyle and became the Dominant Female that I am today. I met my future ex-husband on a bulletin board system (BBS), and we ended up buying it. I stayed in the lifestyle for a while, eventually fell in love, got married, had children, and ended up working for a religious entity. This made it difficult to practice my dominance in public. Around 2003, in my late thirties, right about when my children went to school, I began exploring online. By 2005 I had an online group of subs and slaves working with me to complete my goals. Being a very goal-driven businesswoman, I was making an empire online just with my radio station.5
If you want to know the radio station’s web address, email Theyna.▲
That was when I discovered the Czech Republic’s OWK.
In 2006 I spoke to the real-world OWK about playing the radio station in the background of their sessions, and they did end up using it as a backdrop occasionally. At that time, I was involved on a BDSM website and met a woman there who told me about Second Life. Myself, and a few of my slaves went and investigated it. We ended up making money in Second Life and developed approximately 6 × 16 acres of land. People were using the radio station as in-game background music in Second Life, and we also had land for rent. In 2007 or so, Michaal Ultsch came into Second Life to establish an OWK presence.6
Michaal Ultsch was the Second Life identity used by a real-life slave secretary of the physical OWK.
Myself and about eight other women decided to get together and help him. We formed the Lady Senators—this counsel was organized to make decisions for OWK in SL. In the beginning of the OWK in SL, it really looked nothing like the physical Other World Kingdom. For the next eight months, the Lady Senate opened up and ran the OWK in SL working alongside Michaal. Most of my resources in Second Life were put into the project. I helped produce the graphics and built things as Michaal requested. In 2008 he came to the Lady Senate and told us that the real-world OWK did not want him in Second Life. The OWK in SL was moved, and my group, along with my then real-life husband, created a condensed virtual replica of the real-world Other World Kingdom. We maintained a roleplay there with the help of some of the women who were actually involved with the real-world OWK.
Unfortunately, I was never able to visit the physical Other World Kingdom. I had planned to, but it closed before I had the opportunity.
What was the relationship between the OWK in SL community and the owk.cz online forum associated with the physical micronation? What was the motivation for starting the OWK in SL community?
The website really had nothing to do with the OWK in SL. The OWK in SL group was established for members: you had to pay a fee to join. Many people who were involved in the online version were able to live out fantasies they couldn’t in the real world. It gave people the experience, in part, of what they wished to do in real life. A lot of people would like to be in the lifestyle and weren’t able to do it in person for whatever reason. In Second Life, they were able to experience it both mentally and visually online.
How did you coordinate the different types of laborers involved in building the Second Life version, and what was the importance of starting the digital reconstruction with the sewers? How was the complex laid out and used?
I had a group of about twenty people with different talents help me create the OWK in SL. People supplied us with blueprints, and we used the owk.cz website to obtain pictures of items that we chose to replicate. The process began with making a mountain that we then carved sewers and a prison into, and then we embedded a working security system. Residents of SL who wanted to roleplay as a slave in the prison system would be brought into the prison via boat. They entered the site through a massive waterfall where they were stripped, hosed down, examined, and checked in. Some of the roleplay included interrogations. In the prison where the slaves had to do work were items: a sponge, toothbrush, and a mop bucket to clean the floors or clean up the sewers. They also were put into solitary when they disobeyed. They used notecards to put out a warrant on the slave, and when they were captured and processed, the Judge would get the orders and court would be in session.
On top of that all, we recreated the castle itself. The castle included the queen’s bedroom, the throne room (including a replicated version of Queen Patricia the First’s throne from the physical OWK), a dining area, the Lady Senate meeting area, the courthouse where slaves were sentenced, the pillory where they were publicly punished, and an upstairs ballroom. Next to the castle was a guesthouse and longhouse, which had a kitchen, a pool, and Club Wanda.7
Club Wanda was the nightclub embedded in the physical OWK complex.
Behind the castle, there was a clinic for medical play and an amphitheater for slave auctions and entertainment. Behind that was a big path that went down into the valley, where there was a riding stable, a dog kennel, a marketplace, and finally a dock. You could take a boat around the whole simulated island.8
Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) was also an island.
What compromises were made when you brought the original OWK layout into the SL setting?
The architecture was modeled as closely as possible. Though, in the prison, we had to add a spiral staircase to get between levels more easily. In Second Life, you also have to build interiors really big in order to be able to cam from the back of your avatar comfortably, so a lot of the buildings were scaled up.9
In the game your avatar walks around in a third-person view, unless you go into “mouselook.” You need to have the structure big enough to be able to see—otherwise, you will only see outside the building because of the camera’s placement behind your avatar’s body.
Second Life itself made some adjustments to what we built through software updates. In 2009 the economy crashed, and we lost one of the core members of the community, who was working there every day as a greeter. The whole group was grieving his loss, as he had died in real life, and we had an online memorial for him in SL. We decided at that time, because of the economy and our loss, to close all the simulations (sims). I didn’t open up the area for a few years. After coming back, and evaluating the structure of Second Life, I realized that the new mesh design was not compatible with the old builds.10
Second Life’s conversion to mesh geometry occurred on August 23, 2011.
Did the gameplay limit BDSM practices that are possible IRL? What new practices did it allow for?
Basically, you can do anything in SL that you would do in real life. At the same time, you can do a lot more in SL that you wouldn’t do in real life. One of my favorite things to do in SL is fly. When I was a child, I dreamt of flying over my city at night. Second Life brought back a little bit of my childhood dreams. One thing that is great about Second Life is that some of the sims turn on a feature that allows you to die. Unlike in real life when you die, in Second Life you just teleport home.
As far as being in the lifestyle, I find that playing in Second Life as a FemDom lacks the ability to replicate the pain that can be found in real-life play. Although, Second Life sometimes allows people in their homes to experience pain through instructed self-infliction. A person who is roleplaying in Second Life could invoke a safe word to stop the activity just like in real life.
As far as someone who is not in the lifestyle, has never experienced the lifestyle, and is engaging in Second Life, you would find those people dealing with a more mental humiliation. People that are not in the lifestyle in real life are prone to using Second Life to experiment. This works both ways, since I am a real-life Dom, I tend to use Second Life for nonlifestyle adventures.
At the OWK in SL, how did members use their avatars?
Second Life is a very versatile platform, and it caters to many different aspects of life. Avatars can engage in many levels of relationships including sexual activity. You can even go shopping in its marketplace for sexual parts. Male avatars are like Ken dolls, and you can shop for penises. When you log into Second Life, there is a plethora of avatar enhancements, including skin, hair, nails, heads, bodies, makeup, clothing, and mesh body parts. Residents of Second Life even have the ability to customize themselves to look like their real-life selves or to make something completely different to express themselves.
Did the rules of the OWK’s founding charter still apply in the SL community? For instance, did participating women need to reach the age of consent and own at least one male slave?
We had similar rules and hierarchies, though we had to incorporate them within Second Life’s terms of service. We also had an additional element where we added voice verification to confirm the Dominant Female’s gender.11
For a more complete exploration of the fraught connection between gender identity and digital verification technology, see the work of Os Keyes.
There was a Queen, but the role was switched every month as a way of democratizing the role. There were Lady Citizens, male slaves, Pony Trainers, Slave Trainers, Guardesses, and the slave secretary.
Was there a hierarchy of players/community members that corresponded to the hierarchy in the physical OWK (Queen > Sublime Ladies > Female Citizen > Farm Animal > Male Slave)? The physical OWK also maintained its own “currency, passports, police force, courts, state flag, and state hymn,” according to Queen Patricia the First. Did any of these tools exist in the OWK in SL and/or were new ones created?
In Second Life we used Second Life money (Linden bucks). Our passports were our digital memberships to the Second Life group. We didn’t have our own hymn, but our theme song was “Venus in Furs” by the Velvet Underground. We picked this song because there is a rumor that Venus in Furs, an 1870 novel by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, was the original inspiration for the OWK in Czech Republic. I designed a new flag for the OWK in SL because we didn't want to copy the original design. Our flag had a Guardess hat on it with a whip and read “Other World Kingdom in SL.” In the physical OWK, there was a rule where you couldn’t look at Queen Patricia the First, but that wasn’t a practice that we could reasonably reproduce the same way in cyberspace.
The voice recordings bring up a question of gender more generally. Did the definition of male/female become more flexible in the digital OWK? Were there conversations about gender in the community?
There was one trans woman in the Lady Senate, prior to my taking over, who was one of the Doms. She ended up leaving after there was some conflict with other (cis) women on the council who didn’t like her presence, though I supported her. She was never voice verified. In the end, prior to my taking over of the OWK in SL, we adopted the same values as the real-world OWK and only accepted [cis women as] Dominants. There were a number of other players who never voice verified either, but that was fine, and the male slaves knew that before interacting with them. A hierarchy of gender was the founding motivation for the OWK in SL. Though we allowed other races and species, the female-gendered role players were always above the males. This scenario kept the environment in a state where males were inherently desiring to worship and uplift women.
Could you walk me through a typical role play that went on in the OWK in SL?
One of the typical role plays was ponyplay. There was a Pony Trainer, and either a pony would sign up to be trained and would rent a stable, or someone who owned a pony and wanted to learn how to train their pony would rent the stable. The OWK Pony Trainer would go through all the aspects of how to train ponies, starting with showing the person what types of gear to buy in Second Life. Then, the trainer would show the owner how to train, just like a person would do it in the physical OWK pony area. This entailed showing them how to use a whip, a cart, and number commands to tell the pony what to do: one to go, two to stop, etc.
As a real-life Dominant, what was it like dominating a male slave through Second Life?
I was in the lifestyle before Second Life, and there was a lot of flow between online and IRL interactions. When I first entered SL, a lot of people flocked to me, and I had a group of twenty-four people before I entered Second Life.12
At one point up to a hundred men per day would contact Theyna to join her stable.
Some of the women in Second Life started to freak out and call me names. Two of the names stuck in my head, one of them being “the vortex.” The other name I was referred to as was “the Borg.” Well, I kind of believe that when people throw stones at you, you use them as building blocks to construct your empire. So, my Second Life house in the sky resides in a Borg cube. As far as dominating males through Second Life or online, one of my most prominent adventures was with a young man from San Diego who I had met online in 2003. I micromanaged his life to the extent of putting him in college, telling him how to spend his money, and telling him when to sleep and eat. I pretty much dominated this guy’s life, and we were together daily for eight years. After he got a BS in college, he ended up moving in with us and going on to get a doctorate. To me this is real domination, not the porn you see on the net. Though we may have had the kink in our relationship through the web and in real life, it's no Fifty Shades of Grey. It was a real lifestyle relationship where a Dominant Female controlled a male slave. As far as dominating males online through Second Life, this was the kind of domination that normally doesn’t happen. Most of the time you had players and kinksters who were just there to get their rocks off.
How was the reconstruction of the OWK in SL funded? Were “male slaves” charged fees in the OWK? If money was being generated through the OWK in SL community, how was the money governed? Individually, collectively, etc.?
You can own property in SL, and I owned the territory that the OWK was on.13
The real estate market and bubble in Second Life is historically insulated against, and even inversely proportional to US and global real estate crashes; the Second Life economy is currently worth approximately $500 million.
Male slaves paid fees and rent to be a part of the kingdom. Most of the proceeds went to pay for the sim. It was approximately three hundred dollars a month. Any leftover donations were divided among the Lady Senate. In addition to fees, we had donations. A percentage went to the Lady Senate and to Lady Citizens. Male slaves were there to contribute and donate. We would also have dances or parties and donate the funds we raised to nonprofits and charities supporting cancer research or abused women.
Were there specific hurdles you had to overcome in order to justify your community in SL? Did any of the OWK in SL practices butt up against user policies?
You can basically do whatever you want, providing you stay within the guidelines of Second Life. It was not as much the institution of SL that I have had issues with but the changing culture. With FemDom you are doing it because you want to, because it has an ideology you support, not because you want money for it necessarily. You also have to think about it on a global level, in today’s world you have a lot of catfish out there scamming people out of money. This fetish has its fill of catfish just like any other genre on the internet.
Have you heard about the OWK castle complex in the Czech Republic reopening under new ownership in 2018, after it was bought by a man who also secured the rights to Queen Patricia the First’s title and narrative?14
According to some women affiliated with the OWK, its current owner is a man who used the grounds as a pay-to-play set for Doms to make films and other content to sell online. The OWK website states that its current owner is still Queen Patricia the First.
How do you feel about this next stage of evolution for the OWK?
I believe that the physical OWK no longer exists on the grounds; the buildings and the castle were put up for sale.15
The sixteenth-century castle and surrounding complex that the OWK inhabited purportedly cost over $2 million to renovate. The money was supplied by financial backers who remain anonymous and have since sought to recoup their loss by listing the complex on a “castle only” realty site. The listing appears to be no longer active, suggesting that the property has been sold to new owners.
Whatever is there now is not the old OWK as it stood. In the OWK in SL there were also issues of trademark and licensing. Myself and the group of eight women who originally founded OWK in SL received help from the physical owk.cz website. The Sublime Lady BeeQueen Smythe helped by making us diagrams of where stuff was supposed to be.16
This was her name in Second Life—she was a real-life Austrian dominatrix who visited the physical OWK.
Once we established the buildings, we opened the sim for use. OWK was then trademarked in the USA, and we had full rights to its use in SL. As a business woman, I had other plans for the name in the future.
Speaking of business, what is your next venture?
The Oracle of Women’s Knowledge is an alternative initialism of “OWK.” The OWK in the United States is run by a female and was originally established to promote female empowerment and female-led relationships. It also adopted the use of aquaponics and livestock to create a self-sustaining community. The land resides in rural Tennessee. During the current COVID-19 crisis, we are working with other nonprofits to help families who are in need. We are helping them survive either the loss of their home or income, through the use of educational videos on the internet. These videos feature survival tactics if a family becomes homeless during this pandemic. The mission continues.
How Websites Learn: A Conversation with Laurel Schwulst
by Benjamin Good
How Websites Learn: A Conversation with Laurel Schwulst
by Benjamin Good
Today’s web has a crisis of character. Perhaps it is due to an unconscious identification with what is familiar and visible; there is a sameness when flying from link to link, index to index. Laurel Schwulst is an artist and designer whose websites feel like a clearing in a dense of trees. It would be wrong to say her work is nostalgic for an earlier age—rather it adapts the processes of the early internet to a new time. There is great excitement to be found in her work’s creative reuse of web elements, recurrent signifiers, and unconventional approaches to websites-as-metaphors.
Schwulst frequently collaborates with fellow artists. In 2013 she worked with visual artist Sydney Shen on Perfume Area, a website featuring poetic-prosaic reviews of fragrances. Later, over the course of 2020, she worked with fellow internet artist Elliott Cost on a podcast called HTML Energy, where they speak with other artists who use HTML in surprising ways. Schwulst is also an educator, teaching website making through her program Fruitful School and as a lecturer at Yale. We sat down for a virtual interview, where I asked her about how websites age, about how we should understand web usability, about how we might use analogies between the materials of architecture and the language of web design.
How has working as a web and graphic designer influenced the ways in which you manipulate your physical environment?
I’m not sure. I’ve been doing it a long time, so it’s almost hard to remember when I wasn’t doing web design. (Laughs)
Going back and forth between thinking spatially and thinking about a website helps my work a lot. I designed a website for Artists Space—this New York arts institution—and one of the big things they wanted was for it to somewhat relate to their physical space, which has two separate entrances. So I used that as a major jumping-off point. I asked questions like, “How could the website have multiple entrances?”
With my project Fruitful School—it’s a collaboration with my friend John—we have a workshop for students. Before COVID we did it for six weeks. It ended in February, which feels like forever ago, but we’re going to do it again this fall.
We had a password-protected area for students, where they could have their draft work and view our class materials. One day we were sketching Fruitful School as if it were an environment or a house … so the password protected area would be like some kind of hut in the backyard. (Laughs) We were thinking about making a kind of model of Fruitful School, like in Animal Crossing. That hasn’t happened yet, but it could still happen.
On the web you can really experiment architecturally or structurally. Thinking in these ways is super important. It’s such a different feeling when you have to enter a password to enter a site, and that doesn’t have anything to do with visual design. It is a type of design, but it’s a structural design. And I would say that a lot of the important design work going on today—I hope that students today who are studying web design or graphic design really are interested in some structural approach. Which is what Ed Urcades says at the bottom of his website: “More often than not, the most meaningful human activity boils down to providing support structures for one another. In turn, the most meaningful ‘designed’ output is the infrastructural.”
That reminds me of a concept I really love from Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language: “intimacy gradients.” Basically, the concept is that architectural spaces are best if you think of them as an “intimacy gradient,” meaning: the yard is public, the porch is semipublic, the living room is semiprivate, the kitchen is more private, and the bedroom is the most private. Spaces should be designed with an intimacy gradient in mind, and applying this concept has really helped, because even though I share a lot of stuff, I do keep some things private and it really helps to create different types of feelings when you’re not intending everyone to view it.
And then the bedroom is the password-protected area!
I get slightly offended when there is a password-protected area on a site—it feels somehow directed only towards me. (Laughs) It is really interesting to hear about this idea of a hut or woodshed in the back—the house is a recurring metaphor that you seem to use over time. I think it’s fitting, and the architectural metaphor is somewhat universal, where we all interact with it. I’m curious about your students and how today, with the internet, they are always connected. Do you find that it’s difficult for them to disassociate from being online? Do you think your students have a different relation to the web than yourself?
It’s funny, because I’ve been teaching a while now, since 2013—about seven years ago. Then, there really wasn’t that much of a difference between me and my students. Even though it’s been seven years, I still hear students mention things like AIM and LiveJournal. And I wonder: when is that going to stop? I’m sure we’re not too far from students not knowing about that era of the web. I’m still waiting to be super surprised by students not having any concept of that world—like if they only grew up with tablets and didn’t even know that you could contribute to the web instead of just browse it. I’m still waiting for that moment of complete culture clash.
It is a privilege to be able to step away. And I understand that some people’s livelihoods depend on always being connected, if you’re an influencer or if you depend on social media for new work referrals. I’ve even heard a lot of my peers feel that way: “Why do I always have to be self-promoting—it feels like whenever I’m not self-promoting I don’t have work.” So it’s really tricky. The thing I keep remembering or wanting to tell myself is that there are a lot of people who feel the same way I do, and believe that other ways of communication and being together in online space are possible. And it just takes individuals teaming up and working together to move beyond that. I’m not saying it’s easy or anything. I delete Instagram every few weeks, and I even gave my password to one of my friends and deleted it for a while. (Laughs)
Speaking about personal websites, your work has appealed to me because unlike sites like Facebook where you plug in your information into a database and inhabit an avatar, you seem to promote shaping your own image on the web. That way we can all be contributors, rather than users. A big part of that is the personal site. I’d like to hear about this relation with personal branding, and what is lost when one creates a personal site?
I think everyone should remember that whenever you post something online, even if it is framed as ephemeral, it may always stay online. This is because tools like the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine uses bots that are continually archiving the internet.
I think a good outlook towards the issue of identity online is additive. I think Kanye West said something like, “I am going to call myself a creative genius because no one else is going to.” Similarly, this is my mindset. I also am okay with changing over time, and if someone sees a different version of me in the past, I hope that shows the multitudes, or even multiple people, that are inside one person.
The thing you lose is that you’re not able to take things back, even though we might think of the web as an ephemeral place. You also don’t know who’s screenshotting it; who’s archiving it on their own terms?
If you start going down the rabbit hole of removing content of yours that’s online, it’s actually quite difficult. Even if you contact the person or people who own a site to remove the data, it gets cached in different ways. So you also have to ask them to destroy their cache as well. I’m not an expert on this, but I know that the European Union has better laws and regulations around someone’s own personal rights for data removal, but the United States doesn’t really have that.
I had a roommate who wanted to get rid of a previous version of their life documented online because it made them feel more free to have a different phase of their artistic career. That makes sense to everyone, I feel. There’s a potential to be cemented as something, when actually, what’s so cool about being an artist is that you can reinvent yourself.
I think there’s just a balance there of, “How much am I okay with?” Maybe what I actually want to communicate through my site isn’t content, but more of a process. And this is something I’ve been thinking about recently—so that people understand that if I redo my site, it might look and function completely differently. But what I was talking about before was that I’m interested in a process of recreation, circling back. You should kind of assume that I’m going to be doing this. And so if I were to give anyone advice, I would say: if you’re an artist, maybe you should be communicating your processes rather than your content.
I was just reading an interview with an architect who was talking about this paradox in architecture: that most of the work is building prototypes, which are never to be repeated. So that in the design process, we are often making things, and then regardless of their suitability to a variety of different situations, we have to throw them out at the end—whether out of a desire for novelty or not to repeat oneself. I’d like to hear about your process, and this relationship with novelty and resisting repetition. Should we repeat things that work?
I definitely feel this pressure. I feel like sometimes it takes me a really long time—what I’m saying is, I feel a burden when I have a really good idea and then it isn’t able to be expressed because we pick a different direction. I still want to do something with that. And sometimes there’s a huge lag between it being first discovered, and it being expressed in a different project. (Laughs)
I think it’s smart to revisit your old ideas from time to time. I like being advised by my past selves and am always rejuvenated when I discover how wise they are, when I might feel stupid in the present moment.
Personally, I try to find a good balance point between wanting a project to be completely novel but also just viewing it as a little piece in my ongoing practice. It’s really fun to have motifs that seem novel basically reappear in different projects of mine. And hopefully, other people can see that I treat that as a playful thing.
I did a project called Perfume Area with my friend Sydney where we reviewed perfumes, and it used these big flower icons—it’s the Unicode flower—and I’ve been reusing that recently in the website design I co-created for Alt-Text as Poetry, which was created between artists Shannon Finnegan and Bojana Coklyat. It’s not like I own the flower, but my use of it might be considered novel. I co-designed and programmed the site with Taichi Aritomo, and we made a video exploring our process, and how Unicode was a good technology to explore since its symbols were both described through the actual symbol but also language (each symbol's name).
Novelty is somewhat important, because I like my designs to encourage curiosity. I think it’s through a combination of novelty with some mystery that I’m able to do that.
There is no such thing as complete, unique novelty. What’s novel is just combining two unlike things that haven’t been combined before. And so you as a creator, someone who’s doing novel things, you should feel okay to grab one of those components and use it for a different project as long as you’re combining it with something else, and that combination feels new but also functional for the task at hand.
Speaking of this idea of structural versus visual designs—do you often think of websites as libraries of content and collections of data, and, for instance, when there is a list, do you like representing it as such? Or is this an ongoing issue where you are trying to let the form and structure coincide? Is it okay breaking them up?
Well, to answer part of your question, I love discovering hidden folders on sites where I can browse all the assets. The processes that take place while you’re making a site, which result in things like a folder of assets, also tell a story about its creation. Even though it’s not a conscious story that you’re narrativizing, it’s one that happens through the process of making. Letting some things live as themselves, like a folder of files, I think is exciting. It really depends on who the audience is. To give one example, the Artists Space site has these different subdomains—images, texts, videos, and artists—and that’s what I meant by the “multiple entrances”; these are different ways to browse the Artists Space archive. One of my big inspirations was accidentally finding an assets folder on an old site and thinking, “Wow, why don’t we just put this front and center?” And I remember Jay, who’s the director of Artists Space, used the metaphor of, “This is us airing our dirty laundry.” (Laughs) We’re just going to show all the images on the site here and, no matter if it’s a little logo of a sponsor or whether it’s an artwork, we’re just going to show it all. Oftentimes, you want to massage that, because one might think, “Oh, we don’t want the logo of the sponsor to be really big in comparison to an artwork.” But I think because we spent a while figuring out that this was an interesting artistic concept for the site, we all agreed that it was cool to air Artists Space’s dirty laundry.
For those who might not know, with each HTML element there are default stylings associated such as colors, borders, and margins. Can you describe your relationship with these default styles? Are there any initial settings you are particularly attracted to?
I really like visited links, and how they turn purple. Just like in default web. I find that they’re not embraced anymore, especially in the context of web apps, because the pages are already refreshing all the time. I find visited link states useful sometimes, like when I’m on an index, and I’m clicking different pages. In an age of personalized feeds, I miss indexes. Craigslist actually might still have these visited link styles.
I’d like to make another architectural analogy. This question is about website decay and website death. There is a Belgian architect named Wim Cuyvers, and he makes a distinction between wood planks and bricks—wood is useful in domestic situations where the material’s inner flux allows one to reflect on mortality—the cracking and the twisting wood is perfect for a home in that it changes and degrades over time. While brick is more useful for a public situation, because it bears the marks of historical processes—he talks about bullet holes that attest to the events surrounding that institution. Are there any web features that you feel fit into either of these categories? Are there features for public sites that are more intrinsically public rather than personal sites?
I’m not sure if the web is very good at decay. Actually, I wrote something on the fruitful school blog called “Designing for Decay.” In the post I talk about how negative operations on websites and social media are often “painfully manual,” as quoted from Venkatesh Rao. I mentioned a tool I’ve dreamed of on both Twitter and Instagram: a softer, more conditional mute. That is, what if you don’t want to hide someone forever? You just need a break for a little while; you don’t want to forget them entirely. Maybe this button could be called “time-out with a fade-in,” because it would hard mute their posts for a set amount of time and then gradually sprinkle their content back into the feed. You don’t need to manually give them another chance; by default, they reappear.
What are some site features you are nostalgic for, or that you feel have been left by the wayside and you would like to see return in the future?
Some of the things I am nostalgic for are actually returning now, which is really exciting. To give some context, I wrote about how I grew up online being really into horses. Riding horses was too expensive, so I focused on collecting toy horses and model horses. There is this whole hobby behind model horses where you paint them and take them to model horse shows and they get awards. When I was in middle school, I found a community of twelve people who happened to be middle-aged women and we were in a private Yahoo group. It was a private forum where we exchanged tips and techniques for painting model horses. It was probably the best learning environment I had been in before college; everyone really wanted to be there. And everyone was so enthusiastic about horses—someone did organize it, but it was really propelled by the group. As someone who has then gone on to teach classes at institutions, there’s a lot of amazing things that happen in that space, but also there’s a bit of going through the routine and being part of something that you “have to do.” It’s the worst feeling if it’s a required class, and people are just there because they have to be. During COVID I see people returning to using online to connect with people they don’t know in real life. Like private Discords or even, in a sense, like what we’re doing at Fruitful School might be a part of this. But I still don’t feel like it’s as weird or specific as a model horse painting community. (Laughs)
Interiority Enjambment: Conversations with Ada Limón, Peter Gizzi, and Tommy Pico
by Genevieve Walker
Interiority Enjambment: Conversations with Ada Limón, Peter Gizzi, and Tommy Pico
by Genevieve Walker
In order to write a believable character, advised Virginia Woolf, an author has to capture humanity such that a contemporary audience can relate. This means that the style they use to draw their characters can’t rely solely on the devices of their literary forebears—it should respond to the current moment.
In her 1924 essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Woolf defends herself against a critic who argues that there are no young novelists able to capture “real” character on the page. But what’s real? she asks, and to whom are young writers being compared? In the past, writes Woolf, it might have been enough to describe the house in which a person lived, but contemporary novelists had to describe the person sitting in the room. Why? Because the “human character” had changed, and the proof was in the emergence of modernism.
Modernism, before it was so named, expressed through art and literature a changing world—the new human condition shaped by the gears of industrialization, the Great War, and new forms of mass media. Modernism was a means of visualizing the tumult of the exterior world processed by the interior.
Every once in a while, writes Woolf, something comes along that changes the human character, and the evidence will appear first in art and in the way people relate. And “when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.”
The writer, keyed in to the importance of character, pays attention, knowing (thanks to modernism, we might say) that to describe an individual’s interiority is to describe the exterior world they live in.
The psychological interior—the inner monologue, the sound of that human character—is a dialectical soup, shaping and shaped by situation. Writing is like that too. It’s a digestion of the exterior through the interior, it’s observation articulated, and it’s a solitary act. The fiction writer communes with the imagination, accessing those tools that bring a character to life. In poetry, interiority is channeled into language.
Now a global pandemic is reordering human relations, as our safety depends on physical distance, and we interact with our communities via screens. Suddenly a relative one state over is as far away as one overseas, their images proximate squares on a Zoom call. We tour museums and galleries and zoos online. A parent who is able to work from home can be an employee, a teacher, a partner, a neighbor, and a sibling without leaving their chair, and a chair in a room once reserved for quiet reflection now serves daily duty as classroom, office, and community center. Private spaces have become public, and the internal has packed its bags and is waiting for the next train out of town.
The shift is both concrete and philosophical. Added to the fear and grief caused by the illness, the thousands dying, the hope for real racial reckoning, the despair of watching the government continue to erode as fast and deafeningly as glaciers in the arctic, is the stress of living this weird, boundless online life.
In poetry when a phrase begins on one line and runs onto the next without terminal punctuation, it’s called enjambment. The magic of the enjambed line is that as the beginning of the phrase pulls the reader forward, they unconsciously supply a logical conclusion. But the conclusion isn’t always logical—it’s associative, strange, and, when reached, often distorts the entire meaning of the phrase, or conversely, completes it. Consider the first stanza of “The Book,” by Rae Armantrout:
The poet uses enjambment
so that the reader
has the constant
of thinking, “Oh, that
Without terminal punctuation between office versus apartment, community center versus living room, mom versus worker, and crowds versus solitude, our interiority is enjambed, beginning in our heads and ending somewhere out in cyberspace.
It’s the job (or the obsession) of the writer, and in particular the poet, to consider the affect of the external on the internal and to name the new syntax for the new self, or the new human character. For that reason they’re often called on to guide the rest of us through the tyranny of the times, to ask, as poet Ada Limón puts it, why we may feel a need to escape while already in isolation. Or what the absence of the party will do to the wallflower. Or why we feel a part of us has been lost when Zoom goes dark.
In the fall of 2020, I asked three poets, as spread out across the United States as they are in style and personal experience, what they were seeing in themselves after these months without gatherings, readings, or in-person classrooms, as Zoom crowds or extends their personal spaces. I wanted to know what it had been like to make work that draws so heavily on the internal digesting the exterior while the two are getting a relational overhaul.
“The toughest part was that I wanted to write, but I really couldn’t,” says Ada Limón. “At first I really just had to be in denial, and then I had to do some grieving. . . . I felt like silence was my only response. Stunned silence.”
Limón is the author of five poetry collections, and a current Guggenheim fellow. Her most recent book, The Carrying (2018), won the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry. Normally Limón travels about once a week for readings and events, but when we spoke on the phone she’d been at home in Lexington, Kentucky, since the start of the pandemic with her husband, cat, and dog.
What is interesting to Limón is the idea that as a writer, what you dream about is space, solitude, and time to reflect, but when it was suddenly delivered this year, what there was to reflect on was “people getting sick and people dying and people losing their jobs. . . . It was overwhelming and brutally life changing.”
What felt like overnight, all the canceled events went online, and the requests for time and work flooded in. Though the messaging she was seeing online was, Relax, do what you need to do, the inbox was saying, We need this by Friday. “It did feel like the world came into my home,” Limón says. “A friend said it would be funny if we just left our Zooms on, and people could watch us do everything, and then they could remind us when we had a meeting. . . . That would be less intrusive.”
There is something curious, Limón says, about the collective experiencing of this pandemic, and the witnessing happening online. “It feels like everything is done as one big eye.”
For poet Peter Gizzi, Zoom makes him feel lonelier than he is when he’s alone in his room with his libraries. “I find it dislocating in a way that’s not useful,” he says. “I’m interested in dislocation, but Zoom is a distortion that I find to be unproductive.”
Gizzi is the author of several books of poetry and a former poetry editor for The Nation. He currently teaches at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and lives nearby, which is where he was when we talked on the phone and where he had been since March 13, when he had to fly back from London just before the travel ban. He’s back to teaching—now online—and doing readings over Zoom, which he finds enervating and exhausting. “I find Zoom makes me feel lonely. Lonelier,” he says. “People say I can break through the frame. I don’t find that I am; I find it deeply alienating.”
It’s the suddenness of together-then-alone that wears on him. “It’s like, click, ‘leave meeting,’ boom it’s gone, and you’re stuck alone in your house after you’ve put out all this energy,” Gizzi says. “Same for the reading. . . . Part of the joy of going out and reading is that you get a hit off the audience. I meet people; I like people. . . . What makes a reading great is that we’re listening to the poet listen to their work. . . . That’s the experience I’m interested in; I want people to listen to me listen to what I’m doing, because my poems are mysteries to me. I’m listening to them too; they’re giving me messages that I didn’t already know. I’m discovering them as I’m reading them. It’s not like I don’t know what I’m doing, but I discover other resonances in the act of listening to the poem.”
For poet, TV writer, and podcaster Tommy Pico, performing and reading over Zoom has been a welcome outlet, and a necessary financial support, in isolation. Pico is the author of the Teebs tetralogy—IRL (2016), Nature Poem (2017), Junk (2018), and Feed (2019)—and was in his apartment in Los Angeles when we spoke. Despite mostly staying in his apartment, he adds, “I have this walk that I do during the golden hour, which is about three miles. . . . My friend Morgan Parker lives like fifteen minutes away on foot, and sometimes I’ll hang out in her yard.” His interiority, he says, is mapped on to his twenty-four new houseplants—“buddies who I talk to and sing to.”
Before the pandemic Pico made a living as a touring artist. In April 2020, for National Poetry Month, he was supposed to travel almost every day, which, along with National Native American Heritage Month in November, pays for most of his year. “I was really scared,” he says. “My roommate had left to go back to New York . . . for fear of a travel ban, so I was by myself. I couldn’t get another roommate during shelter in place. My rent had effectively doubled, and all of my performing gigs had canceled. . . . I think that stressed me out on a cellular level. . . . That did not produce any good writing.”
Alongside the fear of the first month of the pandemic was the unexpected bliss of total quiet: no travel, no emails, no requests. “For the first time in years I wasn’t getting dozens of emails a day that I could never hope to respond to. It was silent,” he says. “And I was like, okay, I’m anxious because I, like everyone else, am waiting to see if I develop symptoms, but no one is asking me to do anything; this is wonderful, you know?”
Then Zoom culture arrived. Suddenly everyone wanted something and everyone felt entitled to ask. “Things weren’t geographically tied so we could do them anywhere, any when,” Pico says. “Everyone was asking for all of this free labor. And I was like, my rent just doubled; I can’t be doing free things right now. There is a weird entitlement because everyone is scared. It’s like, we’re in this together, which means I can ask you to do anything. Before I had the excuse of being on the road, but now seemingly I don’t because I’m at the house all the time. But that doesn’t mean I have no boundaries. Maintaining healthy boundaries while in a state of shock or grief or fear or denial or bargaining or whatever has been one of the ultimate tests for me in this time.”
For Gizzi, pandemic isolation has been an opportunity to consider our role as humans on earth, our place in time and in space. “I have a strange view of COVID,” he says. “I think it’s an opportunity for us to see that we’re just visitors here; this isn’t our place. There are things that live in the planet that are bigger than us, like a virus.”
One of the challenges of pandemic lockdown for Gizzi has been not associating the solitude with the two years he spent taking care of his brother, who was dying of ALS. “That was maybe the saddest journey I’ve ever been on. It was just profoundly sad,” Gizzi says. “I don’t write autobiographical poems; I don’t tell stories about my actual life. I use the emotional space and turbulence that I’m in to create something other . . . some kind of opening. Taking care of my brother . . . was a spiritual program, and I think it made me bigger. That was the opportunity there. And I wrote through it, which is a gift. Poetry’s been a gift my whole life. Poetry has been the one thing that’s connected me to a world.”
It took a few months for Pico to be able to write. Eventually he got commission work and a TV writing gig, and he started doing Zoom events to supplement his income. It was a nice way to channel his energies, and the transition to performing online wasn’t actually as hard as he’d expected. “As a performer . . . you can’t subsist on audience reaction because audiences change and venues change,” he says. “The reaction you might get from a music venue at 9:00 p.m. when everyone is drunk versus an overlit bookstore at 3:00 p.m. is very different. . . . I had tried to teach myself to get my self-esteem from the performance itself and not from the reaction. . . . In my apartment I wasn’t getting applause; I wasn’t able to look at a crowd of people, but I tried to center in my performance and in my voice and in my gesticulations. I found it to be a welcome outlet for all of the feelings that were necessarily pent up because I was pent up physically in my apartment.”
But when Pico realized there was really no end in sight to virtual performances, he grieved. “I’d been making do with these virtual performances with the idea that at some point . . . surely by August, I’d be performing again,” he says. “But that wasn’t actually in the cards. . . . I used to have such stage fright. Over the course of years, and basically exposure therapy, forcing myself to get onstage, I had to learn how to perform. And I came to really enjoy it, really love it and live for it. And the idea that I wouldn’t be able to do it anymore really, really kicked me in the stomach.”
Like Pico, Limón struggled to create any new work for months. But eventually she began to write again. “I think a lot of writing is proof of life, and I needed that,” she says. “I needed to say, ‘I’m here. I’m still here.’ Even if I was just saying that for myself and my body and my own heart—‘I’m here, I’m here.’ That felt important.”
One challenge for her has been learning to “turn off” and prioritize quiet when quiet no longer means being alone. “I’m still realizing how much we get our self-worth from action and doing. And I don’t think a poet’s life is like that,” Limón says. “We get a lot of self-worth from just being and listening and receiving; a lot of what we do is receive the world, process and filter it. And the less we are ‘on’ . . . I think the more our writing comes to us.”
Recently she had the thought, How can I go away more? “Here we are completely isolated and withdrawn from society, and I had the feeling that I needed to somehow hide farther . . . go where I don’t even have an internet connection,” she says. “If there is anything that I can learn from this. I’d like to do it.”
In isolation, time changes. Days are longer when they’re filled with an unfolding global crisis. As a poet, the mutability of time is of particular interest to Gizzi. “Time’s always been slippery for me,” he says. “I think it’s a fiction. This experience, this timelessness period, has only deepened my relationship to that idea. One of the things that poets do is bend time, transform it. I can create a present on the page, but it’s outside of time. Poetry is using language in an entirely different way. It’s taking the codes that we’re given to communicate and transforming them, to bend time, to bend reality; at least in my case, to dilate and find an opening, some emancipatory signal.”
Pico hadn’t written poetry in a while, but he tried writing a little during the pandemic. “I found that unlike the books I wrote, which were all about travel and far-flung galaxies and going to the beach and pizza parlors, that in the absence of going anywhere the poems were very short; they were clipped, encapsulated, almost haiku-like,” he says. “And that surprised me, that poetry in confinement, as it were, meant that they were very, very short, almost like impressions, because I wasn’t physically going anywhere. I think that’s how I have related to this idea of encapsulation, and the work itself mirrored the physical state that I was in.”
“Every day feels like an emergency of a different kind,” says Limón. “It feels like my daily habits are literally just trying to find breath, find some joy, find some warmth, and find a place that feels a little bit safe. My life has gotten very small. I can tell you the different birds on my feeder. And when I say different birds, I mean, ‘That’s the jay that comes in the morning; there is a different one with a longer tail that comes in the evening.’ I think that that has been my technique—to go smaller and smaller and smaller. While everything is so terrible there is some part of my inner world that seems to be flourishing a little bit.”
Sousveilling the Protest: Photography from the Bottom-Up
by Sanoja Bhaumik
Sousveilling the Protest: Photography from the Bottom-Up
by Sanoja Bhaumik
On the last weekend of May 2020 thousands of New Yorkers marched in several neighborhoods, protesting yet another act of anti-Black police violence. Earlier that week, a cell-phone-recorded video of George Floyd’s murder spread on the internet and cable news. Suddenly the street returned as a space of physical meeting, this time carrying an unfamiliar, nervous energy. Protesters passed hand sanitizer between chants; New York had not seen such a large public gathering since it was announced as the pandemic’s epicenter, a landscape of makeshift outdoor hospitals and portable morgues.
At a protest I attended in Harlem on Saturday, May 30 everyone recorded everything. It seemed natural to capture an uprising in the midst of a global lockdown, to display participation and to encourage more. And given that a cell phone delivered the original call to action, it made sense to wield our devices as weapons against the police. I turned on my camera when NYPD officers arrested a young Black woman, who silently stood in front of them with her right fist raised. I recorded when a cloud of pepper spray blocked our route downtown, and we turned around hoping to find another path. That weekend, dozens of videos depicting the NYPD went viral on Twitter. One video showed an NYPD officer pushing a woman to the ground. Others showed NYPD vans on fire or driving into protesters. By Monday, June 1, the mayor had set a curfew on the city.
I continued attending protests throughout June. I learned about them through Instagram and sent DMs of the flyers to friends. Though each protest felt distinct, iPhones dotted every crowd, speakers always gave statements, and white people regularly held signs saying “fuck white supremacy” and “silence is violence.” Cameras were pointed at my masked face; cameras were pointed at the cops’ unmasked faces. Each time a cop grabbed a protester, cameras rushed forward, bringing proof of the abuse into the hands of dozens. Yet once the photo or video was presumably posted on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, it could ultimately be in the hands of thousands, if not millions. Helicopters and drones buzzed above, while some protesters kneeled or marched. I went to a forty-person vigil for Black Trans Lives with a police drone watching, and cops dotting the perimeter. Keenly aware of all the eyes circling, I posed for the future, hoping in the short term that our cell phone videos would usher in “accountability,” and that in the long term, future generations would look back at our actions with admiration. Didn’t we want to be seen?
As thousands continued to take to the streets throughout early June, local and federal law enforcement agencies collaborated to compile information about the protests. Months later in August, dozens of NYPD officers, some armed in tactical gear, stormed the apartment building of an organizer for Black lives. On June 1, the FBI sent out a request to civilians for information, including visual evidence, of “individuals inciting violence.” The agency defended its chilling appeal in the request itself, writing that its “mission of protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution” was “not contradictory.” The FBI nonetheless added that it was “committed to apprehending and charging violent instigators who are exploiting legitimate, peaceful protests and engaging in violations of federal law.”
In addition to asking for images, the FBI tracks cell-phone locations and collects data from social media, efforts intensified during the George Floyd protests with the help of private technology companies. The Interceptreported that on June 9, the FBI signed an expedited agreement with Dataminr, an artificial intelligence company that provides real-time alerts from social media monitoring. Emails revealed that Dataminr relayed locations of the George Floyd protests to the Minneapolis Police Department, largely relying not on reporters, but on “ordinary bystanders—what the [Dataminr] system calls ‘eyewitnesses’—who were either watching or attending the rallies and tweeting in a completely personal capacity.” The recent moves toward expanded surveillance build on the federal monitoring of Black Lives Matter since its entrance to the national stage. With facial recognition technologies operated by both the FBI and local police departments, social media images have increasingly become vehicles for tracking individuals.
Images of protest remain seductive. While protesters and organizers often know about police surveillance of social media to some degree, images continue to be useful in galvanizing support and launching emotive calls to action. Images can document, countering an authority’s rendering of a moment of conflict, and they can also construct a new reality by making solidarity visible. But how can we picture protest under a constant specter of surveillance? What happens when the state and the protester see the same image?
Scholars have offered insight into the question of who sees, and the power that seeing gives. In his 2011 book, The Right to Look, Nicholas Mirzoeff theorizes what he calls “countervisuality.” This countervisuality conflicts with an authoritative visuality, which reinforces existing power structures, and in turn renders these structures invisible. For Mirzoeff, countervisuality is more than a return of the gaze, but rather an alternative mode of viewing that encourages spectators to notice and rebel against the dominant forces that structure visual order. Not everyone has the right to look, and looking in itself—such as “reckless eyeballing” in the Jim Crow South—can be policed, strengthening the authority of visuality. Mirzoeff argues that countervisuality can be found, for example, in certain art produced in response to the anti-colonial Algerian War of Independence. In depicting the violence of imperialist visuality, Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1996 neorealist film The Battle of Algiers alerts the spectator to an aestheticized segregation built on the violence of a colonial order.
Like Mirzoeff, sociologist Simone Browne looks to the system of US slavery to think through ways of seeing. In contrast with surveillance, she draws on Steve Mann’s concept of “sousveillance,” or the “observing and recording by an entity not in a position of power or authority over the subject of the veillance.” Browne argues that a specific form of “dark sousveillance” has always accompanied the surveillance of Black bodies, which opposes such surveillance and imagines alternatives. But Browne also warns that even in attempts to watch the watcher, sousveillance can be repurposed as a surveillance tool. Video clips of uprisings and attempts to turn the camera onto the police can still amount to the “governing of black life” when uploaded to sites like Twitter and Facebook, which she likens to state-adjacent agencies. Even The Battle of Algiers, made before the advent of social media, has been recontextualized to support state motives: in the early days of the Iraq War, the Pentagon organized a screening of the film so that American soldiers could learn about guerrilla tactics in counterinsurgency and the “challenges faced by the French.”
For some, this possibility for state co-optation—even of visual evidence originally intended to support anti-state positioning—ultimately means that cameras always serve as tools of the state. “In Defense of Smashing Cameras,” an anonymous April 2016 contribution to Anarchist News, offers this sobering message: “We are making ourselves vulnerable to attack.” The piece continues, “Cameras are tools of the surveillance state and dominant forms of control that our very presence on the streets seeks to dismantle.” Echoing Browne’s warning, the post argues that the camera of the protester is the camera of the cop:
For every police photograph, there are ten more incriminating ones on twitter [sic]. For every official observation, every surveillance camera pointed our direction, we are doing ourselves the injustice of allowing ourselves to be recorded, disseminated and documented by our peers, in the name of free speech or journalistic impartiality, entitlement, whatever you want to call it. And it has to stop.
For me, the article also raises the questions: Who is a participant? Does holding a camera make you participate for the future, rather than the present? Photographs can document the past for the future. The idea that photography in itself can bring justice, and can therefore be superior to live participation, suggests a belief in the system to change through the act of documentation. Yet photographs and videos have failed so far at causing systemic change, or even to bringing forward the arrests of police officers. “Eyes without bodies do not move, but they may propel enemies,” the Anarchist News post says. A camera disrupts one’s physical presence, and to contend with this disruption, photographers must consider if their action serves justice in the present or in an assumed—perhaps fictional—future. According to the Anarchist News author, activist cannot be synonymous with photographer.
Even if organizers ban cameras or individual protesters refuse to use them, protests are ultimately public events that are seen. Cameras float among the crowd, and even among bystanders peering from balconies and windows, intrigued by the events below. Protests negotiate public space with embodied presence, physically constrained by the boundaries formed by buildings, rivers, bridges, and fences. Yet on the internet, where images of protests are shared and reshared, these physical constraints do not exist. On the ground, organizers can exercise some control over where a protest moves and how it behaves, yet they have almost no say over what happens in the parallel, coexisting world of social media. Protesters have rarely been able to control the gaze of the traditional news media, but in cyberspace, there is even less control, a more rapid transmission between the eyes of the protester and the eyes of the state.
Are there alternative visions of protest situated in the present? Or must we give up cameras entirely? Artists reimagining protest photography in the age of facial recognition and location monitoring ultimately manipulate the act of seeing. They often turn the camera back onto the state or alert the viewer to their own participation in surveillance systems.
Photojournalism showing protests can be reactive, even in attempts to dispel mythologies of violent protesters and riots. Even when protesters are shown engaging in “peaceful” activities, photojournalists fall into the trap of capturing innocence. They enter the dialogue in a defensive posture. Photographs of New York’s protests in June published in the New York Times, for example, show multiple cases of protesters kneeling with their hands up, defending themselves from police officers using aggressive tactics like kettling. These images of righteous behavior, nonetheless met by brutal assault, can be contrasted with images of “violent looting” and “illegal behavior” in the same city during the same wave of protests.
Surveillance scholar Torin Monahan attempts to describe surveillance art by asking:
In what ways can artistic endeavors alter people’s perspectives of surveillance? What is the capacity of art to reveal systems of control and induce reflexivity in others, perhaps leading them to recognize their role in surveillance systems and modify their behavior?
Monahan places surveillance art into several categories, including works that “emphasize viewers’ complicity or participation in the regimes in question.” This form of participatory artwork allows artists and photographers to imagine new ways of interacting with protesters. Much of what is now described as surveillance art emerged in the wake of 9/11, following the passage of the Patriot Act and the heightening state surveillance of Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian communities. Hasan Elahi turns the FBI surveillance he experienced into art, Josh Begley pieces together NYPD documentation of Muslim-owned gathering places, and Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh present a “warm database” of the immigrants who were detained on suspicion of terrorism after 9/11. These works unveil the hidden surveillance around us, often refashioning governmental documentation and security footage into a critique against the state itself. These artists show how the lens can be turned against powerful interests, a lesson for anyone who documents protests.
Many artists have hidden the identities of individual subjects captured. For instance, in Ghani and Ganesh’s work, the database of state documents is linked to anonymous, yet personal, narratives that remind us of the individual tracked by the state. But protest photography has a distinct set of tasks and uses a distinct set of subjects. Can protest photography do the work of Mirzoeff’s “countervisuality” to expose hegemonies, to capture the power of a movement, and to evade state surveillance? Or does the ubiquity of protest photography emerge from the very tools of social media that reinforce policing? For some, photographing protests, even in a participatory way, pauses the attack.
Activestills, a photography collective that operates between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, advocates for the title “activist photographer,” a positioning that differs from that of the Anarchist News contributor. The collective’s aims suggest that photographers can be both observers and participants. The group maintains an online archive that it describes as “operative, and not simply contemplative,” and it also puts on guerrilla exhibitions in outdoor areas where protests have taken place. Activestills’s photography has been reproduced, materially reengaging with the act of protest. In one example, Activestills took a photograph of a Palestinian activist who was later killed by an Israeli soldier. The photo was placed on shields used in later protests, and an Activestills photographer then captured photos of these shields. The shield is at once a weapon and a memory. In a photograph, the Droste effect of a protest within a protest symbolizes chronology, forward-moving time, and the constant repetition of oppression.
On the surface, Activestills’s work is aesthetically similar to traditional photojournalistic forms. Identities are shown, images go unmanipulated, and photographers’ actions at the scene remain interrupted by the camera’s role in documentation. But the images can reenter the protest, in posters and shields and memorials. With its embedded participation in the movement, Activestills differs from photojournalists who claim to be objective. But can the viewer notice the difference between “activist photograph” and more defensive, sensationalized photojournalism? In Activestills’s context, the final image often falls into both categories, depicting Palestinians dominated by the oppressive presence of lighter-skinned soldiers in military gear. With the lack of image manipulation, identities can potentially be traced using facial recognition technologies. While many photojournalists oppose image manipulation, it’s still unclear if the practice of erasing recognizable features alters the essential truth of an image of protest.
Nate Lewis is a New York–based artist and a former ICU nurse. He manipulates his protest photographs, unlike Activestills or traditional photojournalists. He writes on his website, “By altering photographs, I aim to challenge people’s perspectives on race and history through distortion and illusion.” His works often focus on bodies, distorting them with almost collage-like effects, extenuating their textures with more textures, elevating their mobility, and crafting them into dynamic forms. He takes a black-and-white image of protesters, and he obscures their faces and the protest signs they hold with scattered dots and other textures. Lewis erases identities and even the causes of protest. In one work, he fills in the windows of a building towering over protesters, and there’s no one watching them in this view. In the center of the image is an obscured, distorted, illegible protest sign, held up with a wooden stick. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that the words are illegible, or that we learn little about context from these images. The photographs reject the truth claims of traditional photojournalism, but they still manage to portray the energy of a crowd gathering for a cause.
Responding to the saturation of protest images in media, some artists have chosen to forgo photography when visualizing protest, instead moving to other acts of intervention. During Colombia’s national protests in 2019, Bogotá-based artist Liliana Merizalde created over a hundred prints using the fingerprint-like imprints of pots and pans that were used in nightly cacerolazos (a pot-banging type of protest in South America). The prints testify not only to the volume of protesters, but also to an elongated sense of time that a single photograph may fail to capture. Merizalde reveals the commitment of protesters to the collective good through their long-term interactions with one another.
In the months following some of the largest protests in US history, it’s become clearer than ever that there are serious gaps in traditional photojournalistic images of protest. By plotting a different path, compelling images of protest do more than just hide the identities of participants from a criminalizing state. They also elevate the act of protest by documenting heterogeneity and time, by turning the lens back onto the state, and by ultimately embracing a multiplicity of perspectives. Images of protest that intervene and act are uniquely positioned to negotiate both the street and the internet by relaying information between both spheres and resisting surveillance.
Still, in asking for alternatives to protest visualization, it’s worth questioning what we seek from visualizations at all. Why must a protest be documented and shared in order to testify to its influence? While images can communicate the importance of a movement, deeper questions arise about what actually comprises a meaningful protest. Is a protest’s power in numbers, in boldness, or in the change that it actually ushers in? Ultimately, asking what makes an image powerful is asking what makes a movement powerful.
The Myth of Merit: How Migrant Labor Powers the Internet
by Indranil Choudhury
The Myth of Merit: How Migrant Labor Powers the Internet
by Indranil Choudhury
From the 1970s onward, computing technology developed rapidly. The personal computer revolutionized office spaces and the very nature of work itself. Among other things, computers replaced adding machines, typewriters, and filing cabinets—a wide variety of technologies used to create, store, and retrieve information. As computers became ubiquitous in the 1980s, they also became synonymous with information technology (IT). By the 1990s the IT sector and the internet had transformed how businesses managed the majority of such semirepetitive processes, including customer support, payroll, inventory, and much more. Services such as these that can be performed using computers are known as “IT-enabled services.”
The United States was no stranger to the concept of outsourcing, a business model in which companies source goods or services externally, often from cheaper offshore labor forces. US companies first adopted outsourcing with the advent of the railroad; later outsourcing led to a decline of the US manufacturing industry. By subcontracting out parts of their manufacturing processes to offshore locations, US companies were able to cut costs and increase their profit margins. IT-enabled services could easily be outsourced—call centers could be set up halfway across the world and operated for a fraction of the cost of their domestic counterparts.
By the 1990s outsourcing was a mainstream buzzword. Today the trope of a call-center employee with an Indian accent is commonplace in pop culture. But how did India become the default destination for the IT outsourcing industry? The conditions were created in part by economic and cultural colonialism, paired with India’s access to English-language education and science studies. India had already invested in science and engineering as part of its nation-building project. For example, the first Indian Institute of Technology, modeled on MIT, was founded in 1950. By the 90s India was experiencing a tech boom, and the country had a large workforce of bilingual, specialized employees. Finally, after decades of being a closed economy, India liberalized its economic policies in 1991, making it a lucrative destination for foreign investment.
Over the past three decades, cities like Bangalore and Gurgaon, with clusters of outsourcing companies, became known as tech hubs. The industry has been a major contributor to India’s economy—one journalist characterized the millions of calls made and received by Indian call centers as “one of the largest intercultural exchanges in history.” A less optimistic 2001 study, however, referred to call centers and other outsourced services as “digital sweatshops.” The provocative comparison isn’t without merit, as employees have little to no recourse against harsh working conditions. According to the study, the average wage for Indian software engineers at the time was between $4,000 and $23,000 per year, a much lower salary than what their US counterparts typically received. In his book about call-center workers, sociologist Shehzad Nadeem describes a dystopian setting that involves inhumane hours, accent neutralization training, and rampant surveillance of employees.
The outsourcing evangelist Peter Drucker popularized the phrase “sell the mailroom.” If companies could stop wasting time and money on logistical operations, the argument went, they could focus more on innovation and increase profits. But US companies soon found that it was profitable to outsource more than just the mailroom. Call-center contractors represented some of the most vulnerable workers indirectly employed by US companies. They were easily replaceable because they didn’t provide specialized skills beyond the ability to speak English. But gradually another kind of outsourcing was on the rise—one that involved technical abilities like software programming.
In the 1990s the IT industry was growing fast in the United States. The impending problem of the Y2K bug created an increasing demand for IT labor. US tech companies lobbied to increase the number of H-1B recipients, citing the need for more skilled workers. (Many workers, on the other hand, argued that the problem wasn’t a lack of skilled labor, but the fact that companies wanted to avoid paying fairly for it.) As US companies became more dependent on external labor, offshore outsourcing companies popped up. They worked with US corporations to find foreign workers and assist them in securing temporary visas to work in the United States. These relationships soon incentivized outsourcing companies to establish onshore operations in the United States.
The H-1B visa was introduced in 1990 to help US companies address what they claimed were labor shortages in rapidly growing industries that required specialized skills. In the following years, the IT outsourcing industry became the biggest beneficiary of the program.
The H-1B has its origins in the H1 visa, which was introduced as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. The H1 visa was intended for immigrants “of distinguished merit and ability” who would temporarily move to the United States to perform specialized labor. The 1952 act abolished racial restrictions on immigration and naturalization. However, it continued to use the National Origins Formula, which mandated racist and xenophobic national-origin-based quotas that favored countries seen as “desirable” by the US. Immigrants from Asia, who until then were considered ineligible for naturalization, were given small quotas.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 went a step further, abolishing the National Origins Formula. When signing the act into law, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “This system violates the basic principle of American democracy—the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man. It has been un-American in the highest sense, because it has been untrue to the faith that brought thousands to these shores even before we were a country.”
This marked a radical shift in US immigration policy, which until then had largely focused on restricting the immigration and naturalization of nonwhite people. US policy now tacitly placed an emphasis on the “good immigrant,” a mythical figure who is only as valuable as their technical skills and employability. On paper immigrants may be free to chase the American Dream, but in reality they are hindered by a legalized system of exploitation.
In 1990 the H1 visa was split into two categories—H-1A for nurses, and H-1B for workers in specialty occupations. A cap was introduced, limiting the number of H-1B visas issued each year to 65,000 people. As the number of applications could exceed the cap, the United States introduced a controversial lottery system to allot visas in 2005. IT outsourcing firms capitalize on this lottery system to secure an overwhelming majority of the H-1B visas issued each year.
Applying for an H-1B visa is a complicated and expensive process. Small companies can have their resources stretched thin while going through the process. In contrast, some of the top outsourcing firms are huge multinational companies worth billions of dollars. Since there is no limit to the number of petitions a company may submit, about a dozen outsourcing firms inundate the lottery with thousands of applications. A 2015 New York Times report found that just seven outsourcing firms based in India had secured nearly 20 percent of the total H-1B visas the previous year. The effect has been profound—since the mid-1990s, hundreds of thousands of Indian tech workers have immigrated to the United States. This has established one of the largest patterns of labor migration in recent history. According to US Citizenship and Immigration Services data, over 70 percent of the H-1B visas granted in 2019 were provided to Indians, and this trend holds true for previous years as well.
The H-1B is purportedly a mechanism to bring “the best and the brightest” to the United States, not to create an underclass of lower-paid tech workers with fewer labor protections. A direct employer like Microsoft pays some of their H-1B employees wages that can be reasonably compared to similarly employed US citizens. By contrast, an outsourcing company like Tata Consultancy Services pays their H-1B employees much less than similarly employed US citizens. Critics have been raising the alarm about this phenomenon for years; they argue that the program allows companies to legally underpay H-1B workers. In fact, in an analysis published earlier this year, researchers Daniel Costa and Ron Hira found that 60 percent of H-1B workers are paid below median wage for their jobs.
Even if a company directly employs “high-skilled” H-1B workers at a fair wage, that doesn’t stop them from outsourcing “low-skilled” parts of their business processes—and which parts fall into which category is constantly being redefined by businesses. In 2010 Infosys received a three-year contract for all of Microsoft’s internal IT help desk operations. After facing concerns, Microsoft emphasized that this wouldn’t threaten the jobs of its existing employees. In a more revealing statement, then–Infosys Vice President Anand Natraj said, “We will get the first opportunities to build competencies in newer Microsoft technologies.” Whether tech giants admit it or not, their operations don’t just rely on the highest-paid programming employees. They also contract out work to the lower-paid H1-B employees of outsourcing companies. This is to say nothing of the various other more marginal workers that tech companies employ, from contingent delivery gig workers to operational staff like cooks and janitors, none of whom are on H-1B visas. It’s ironic that the technology industry, which is always predicting the disappearance of jobs, is so heavily dependent on physical labor.
Many elected officials agree to at least some version of the following: the United States shouldn’t turn away high-skilled foreign workers; foreign workers shouldn’t be used to replace US workers; and outsourcing companies shouldn’t be allowed to game the visa process. Politicians often make the argument that companies exploit loopholes in the law to abuse the H-1B program, but it can be difficult to determine precisely what these loopholes are. There are a couple of contenders.
Every petition for an H-1B visa must include a Labor Condition Application (LCA) from the employer. The LCA enforces many of the checks and balances of the program, including the mandate that foreign workers must be paid industry-standard wages. However, with little oversight, employers determine what the prevailing wages are. This makes it quite difficult for the government to challenge the accuracy of these numbers.
If the number of H-1B employees in a company crosses a defined threshold, the employer is designated an “H-1B dependent employer.” The company is then required to file additional paperwork to prove, among other things, that it is not replacing US workers. However, if a prospective visa holder is paid a minimum of $60,000 per year or has a master’s degree (or higher) in the field, the employer doesn’t have to prove it made an effort to recruit US workers, nor show that it is not displacing them. Built into the H-1B laws are provisions that undercut the fundamental requirements companies are expected to abide by when hiring foreign workers. These loopholes have been the basis of how the law has operated for the last two decades. In practical terms, they appear less like loopholes and more like the very reason the H-1B exists.
This is not a story about bureaucracy, nor about the impenetrable complexity of US immigration laws. This is a story about human lives. US immigration policies treat human lives as pawns, while allowing corporations to relocate operations and workers across borders whenever it becomes profitable. The same systems socialize us into having a narrow idea of merit, defined by our ability to generate wealth. And when we pursue this ideal, all but a few are punished.
Extreme cases of H-1B abuse occur at so-called “body shops,” which act as brokers, supplying short-term foreign labor to companies primarily for IT-related services. Like outsourcing firms, but even more profit driven, body shops subject their workers to harsh abuse, practically holding them in servitude. They withhold millions of dollars in wages and file lawsuits against employees who quit. It’s worth pointing out that the line between a legitimate outsourcing operation and a body shop can be blurry. In one of the most perverse manifestations of late capitalism, some body-shop owners are themselves Indian, and seek out vulnerable Indian H-1B workers to exploit on US soil.
The patterns of abuse are remarkably similar to those experienced by H-2A visa holders, temporary agricultural workers in the United States. A recent NBC investigation uncovered an increase in H-2A abuse; workers, most of whom are Mexican, endured unlivable housing conditions and were not paid. Once again, those worst affected were recruited by labor brokers. Significantly, when Trump announced his visa restrictions because of COVID-19, H-2A workers were exempt because they were deemed essential by the agricultural lobby.
The use of H-1B as a source of cheap labor is a direct result of US policies; for years, US companies have profited from cheap foreign labor. Now that the presence of the people who do that labor has become politically inconvenient, everyone is scrambling for solutions. The plight of these workers isn’t exactly the US government’s priority. At any time, changes in immigration laws can turn the lives of H-1B workers and their families upside down. This is the reality lived by tens of thousands of people in the United States. A recent Mother Jones investigation into the Trump administration’s handling of H-1B cases revealed that there has been a huge spike in denials for what would otherwise be routine visa renewals. None of the H-1B’s structural problems are being addressed, and these arbitrary denials are in line with Trump’s racist immigration policies. Such policies pit marginalized groups against one another to the advantage of the ruling class. While some “high-skilled” workers villainize the employees of outsourcing companies for adversely affecting their prospects, the truth is that “low-skilled” workers aren’t to blame. It is the US government, and corporations, that have created the current situation.
Harsh immigration policies create an underclass of workers who can’t speak up about poor working conditions for fear of being deported. “Low-skilled” immigrant workers are targeted by everyone, becoming scapegoats for all problems with US immigration policy. Right-wing outlets like the Center for Immigration Studies have used the H-1B issue to further their anti-immigration agenda without questioning how we got here. It’s not impossible to expand protection for both local and foreign workers, but it will be at the cost of lost profits for technology companies. Is that something their lobbyists will allow?
If we focus on skill level as the issue that fixes the H-1B, we will miss the point about why the program has been so valuable to the United States. The idea that enforcing H-1B regulations will drastically improve job prospects for US workers is a stretch.
Cheap labor is the primary reason outsourcing is profitable. This is why it’s useful to see the establishment of the H-1B in 1990 within the context of the IT outsourcing industry, which was growing at the exact same time. A cynical but feasible interpretation of the program is that it was introduced with the very goal of giving US companies access to cheap IT labor. From this perspective, the program has functioned exactly as it was designed to.
The role of technological development is overestimated in the success of Western industry. Or rather, the role of exploitation—of natural resources and human lives in countries in the Global South—is ignored. If companies are willing to go to such lengths to hire cheaper foreign labor, they will not jump to hire expensive US workers if this access dries up. Instead, they will likely offshore the work back to India; the infrastructure there is already set up.
Any model of the future that overestimates the role of technology in disrupting the status quo is reductive. International borders and the strength of passports has as much to do with how we’ll live and work in the future as disruptive technologies. As pundits predict the ways in which artificially intelligent automation will revolutionize the future of work, it’s useful to pay attention to how cheap, invisible labor continues to be a shorthand for automation.
Missing the Bus: Transit Tracking Under Austerity
by Annie Lloyd
Missing the Bus: Transit Tracking Under Austerity
by Annie Lloyd
On Thursday, August 27, 2020, AC Transit—the agency responsible for bus service in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties in the Bay Area—announced the temporary suspension of thirteen bus lines due to “conditions created by COVID-19.” By Friday afternoon, most lines in Berkeley had been curtailed or cut entirely, without any announcements posted at bus stops. This included the 51B, one of the most heavily used bus lines in the East Bay. In an attempt to compensate for the underannounced cancellations, a Berkeley resident biked along the route to inform people waiting at bus stops. The “conditions” alluded to in the August 27 tweet were, as later reported, the need to deep clean buses after a handful of agency workers were exposed to COVID-19.
Unexpected cancellations can and do happen outside pandemic conditions, but this particular instance highlights the precarious status of public transportation today. Agencies around the country are facing dire budget shortfalls from reduced fare and tax revenue and from the lack of broad federal relief for public transportation, besides $25 billion from the CARES Act (and an additional $14 billion from the latest coronavirus relief bill). Stuck between a rock and a hard place, agencies must simultaneously balance their essential status with their fiscal emergency. They are altering schedules, reducing capacities, and making service cuts, but also trying to enforce social distancing and mask usage and to keep buses moving. Of course, a solution to this would be paying everyone to stay home, but in the absence of such a solution, transit has to find a way to keep running. Agencies have been requiring masks, providing hand sanitizer, and allowing boarding through the back door. Many agencies have also reduced service, even though having the same number of riders divided among fewer buses can hinder social distancing. Public transportation is vulnerable on all fronts, which could have disastrous consequences for the economic recovery of poor and working-class city residents, as well as hinder attempts to transition cities away from car dependency toward low-emission futures. Public transit, and bus service in particular, already faced uphill battles in funding, maintenance, and service, largely due to decreased federal expenditures and increased local and state fiduciary responsibility for transit since the Reagan era. The coronavirus crisis is just a cherry on top.
As such, riders in the East Bay already took the system’s unreliability as a given. Local sources like KQED and Berkeleyside focused on AC Transit’s bare-minimum announcement of the service disruptions. Social media responses mirrored this attitude, with vocal riders focusing much of their ire on AC Transit’s poor communication. This is an understandable way of covering the problem; most day-to-day news focuses on events in isolation rather than on their connection to a broader structural circumstance. In the immediate aftermath, it is also reasonable to decry a lack of communication and inefficient alert networks. What this focus reveals, though, is a tendency to prioritize the ability to respond or react to a rupture in the system over the circumstances of the rupture itself.
Agencies and riders use abundant tracking and scheduling data to react to breaks in the system. This data comes from a variety of sources—both public and private—and is commonly interpreted by transit agencies and consultants or is rendered legible for riders by software engineers. The motivation behind amassing this data ostensibly lies in addressing the common frustrations of riding transit: delays, missing vehicles, changed routes. Information that provides the location and status of each bus or train in the transit network theoretically provides updates and alternatives for any type of service interruption, regardless of the circumstance. It makes little difference whether a train is late because of a sick passenger, or a bus is delayed because its route has no dedicated bus lanes—the main priority is a rider’s ability to see the delay in real time so that they can adjust their route and/or expectations. As a result, governance structures and individual citizens recede as the loci of collective attention. In response, flexibility and reactivity emerge as the primary affective postures to an existing system where precarity is the norm. Data accuracy forms a safety valve, allowing a transit system’s decline to extend for a long time without the bottom falling out. Riders are forced to become resilient by continuing to meet the system where it is. For example, if your bus never arrives on time, but a tracker informs you specifically how late it will be, missing the bus becomes a personal problem, your failure to take advantage of the tracking data.
The purported usefulness of this transit-tracking data breaks down, though, when faced with COVID-19 crisis management. On-time predictions of bus arrivals lose their value when the buses themselves are not on the road. To cast these failures as an absence of accurate data and crisis communication is to accept the system as-is and to allow structural forces to elide accountability. Any large-scale change therefore exists in perpetual deferral, and in its place is an accommodating data set that aims to predict and respond to whatever failures inevitably arise.
These data and data-driven transit solutions presuppose an undifferentiated and flattened space. A dot on a map moving through space does not represent what, exactly, constitutes the route. Are the streets residential or commercial? Are they gentrified? Are they hilly? What ghosts and long-forgotten histories live in the buildings along the way? Is the route an old streetcar route or a facsimile of an indigenous route? Are any of the streets de facto segregation borders? The sedimented histories, social values, and materialities of a given street fade from view. In their place, the digitized map emerges as a common-sense representation of moving through space. The flattened space of mobility apps creates the conditions for data to reign supreme. A data-centric mindset ignores that a bus’s low ridership might be attributed to high housing costs that push riders outside a service area or to decades of service cuts. Extended headway times, crowdedness, and traffic delays turn into isolated problems that data collection is called on to solve. Transit system operability, then, is frequently measured through data-driven performance metrics, allowing authorities to discursively cast public transportation as a suffering public sector in need of market intervention.
The ability to track your bus is a recent phenomenon. For decades, a paper schedule or posted map allowed most riders to formulate arrival predictions. Be wary of nostalgia, though; many bus lines are relics of streetcar lines that have been “bustituted”—i.e. substituted by a bus—and have never seen the level of public-works investment that freeway infrastructures have received. The pretracking world of bus ridership included many of the problems we see now. A major difference, though, is the simple reduction of service. After the 2008 financial crisis, many metropolitan areas responded to revenue shortfalls by cutting bus service. By 2010 an estimated three out of four transit agencies around the country had either cut transit service or were considering doing so. The postrecession economy has been marked by precarity, contract labor, privatization of public services, and increasing gentrification. It has also been the era of big tech. Public transit has been particularly vulnerable to these forces. Bus systems are now so vulnerable that fighting for increased service is a moonshot; instead, fighting to keep a bus system at all is the more immediate concern, particularly in smaller cities. Baton Rouge, for example, had experienced seventy-five-minute-long wait times between buses even before the 2008 recession.
One of the first tools for communicating real-time bus locations was NextBus. The company launched in the Bay Area in 1996, eventually expanding into partnerships with transit agencies all over the United States. Prior to smartphone apps, it made bus arrival times available via its website and through a call-in service. It acquired these arrival times through GPS-tracking technology installed into individual buses. Tracking in and of itself transformed the experience of taking public transportation. In 2005 Google engineers partnered with Portland, Oregon’s TriMet to create the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS, originally known as Google Transit Feed Specification). GTFS created the standard for transit data and led to hundreds of agencies in the United States making their transit data open for software developers.
It is important to note, though, that this data initially only included bus stop locations, number of trips in a day, transit schedules, etc. Tracking data only became available when agencies either partnered with a software company—like NextBus, Avail Technologies, or Swiftly—or built their own real-time tracking systems. For example, Kalamazoo purchased GPS for its buses in 2011; New Haven buses got it in 2016. Without GPS tracking, GTFS can only plan trips based on a prewritten schedule. GPS fills in the gap to provide real-time location updates. By the mid-2010s new apps for bus tracking appeared popcorn-style, some directly from agencies. Google Maps was also increasingly getting agencies to provide their real-time tracking information, starting in 2011 with San Diego, San Francisco, Portland, and Boston. Transit was never the primary focus for Google Maps, though, so there was always room for a more dedicated competitor to enter the fray with an app: something that could track your bus or train, no matter what city you were in, and that could adjust based on your habits and preferences. There was room for an app not entirely beholden to (and more accurate than) data produced by transit agencies themselves.
The two apps perhaps most dedicated to filling this role are Moovit and Transit. Moovit, an Israeli company, boasts the largest global footprint with a presence in more than three thousand cities worldwide. It was also recently acquired by Intel for $900 million. Transit, while smaller overall, has a much stronger North American presence. The Toronto-based app is available in over a hundred cities in the United States and more than fifty in Canada. Both apps are funded with venture capital, and Transit has even had investments from major automakers. They also partner with agencies, but are fundamentally consumer-facing. To find an agency-oriented version, look to Swiftly. It offers data collection and processing to agencies with the goal of making the transit experience more “efficient.” The data encompasses everything from real-time tracking to operator reports, which track the performance of bus and train operators.
Transit and Moovit use the same real-time data that agencies provide to Google and smaller apps, but they also use crowd-sourced tracking data to fill in where agencies fall short (or to create tracking data where there is none). They originally intended to be the Waze of public transportation, but their roles have since expanded beyond what Waze tried to do for driving. Not only are Moovit and Transit aiming to provide the most accurate travel predictions to their users—they’re betting on an integrated transit future known as Mobility as a Service (MaaS).
MaaS was popularized by a Finnish grad student in 2014, and it aspires toward centralized trip planning, booking, and payment across all transportation modalities. Within it, tech-cum-transportation companies like Uber and Lyft, bike-share programs, and streamlined public transportation payment hubs all coalesce around an ideology of mobility as an object of consumption rather than a right or a public good. The approach believes in a future where individual car-ownership will no longer have purchase, and instead, urban residents will pick from a menu of options based on price, speed, and convenience. MaaS frequently involves collaborations with big tech, as well as investments from private firms who see major market potential in the continual growth of urban centers. It fundamentally relies on buy-in from the public and private sectors, putting the subway and rideshare services in league with each other rather than in opposition to each other.
Mobility as a Service imagines a world where one app—with a streamlined interface and payment system—allows you to buy a bus fare, to hail an Uber, or to rent a Citi Bike or a ZipCar. Despite being distant from our current reality, there has been a push in this direction. Some urban hubs—like Chicago, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area—have established contactless payment systems, which creates the infrastructure to integrate payment with digital technology. (These payment systems are commonly run by Cubic, which recently bought the struggling company NextBus and is pumping money into rehabilitating it as an up-to-date tracking competitor). Transit has successfully integrated fare purchasing, ride-share hailing, and bike-share renting in some cities, but the jury is still out on the integrations’ potential profitability and traction with riders.
These apps represent the nexus of venture capitalism, tech-heavy urban interventions, and the transformation of the city as an object of consumption. Because public transportation has historically held the mantle of an unassailable public good, these companies can emerge out of that nexus while still marketing themselves as uncontroversial contributions to daily life. Part of Transit’s popularity in the United States comes from how it has presented itself as the app most attuned to the needs of public transit riders. In over a hundred US cities, you can open the app and see the available transportation options in your vicinity. The map design and list of options looks the same regardless of your location. The abundance of choices varies—opening the app in Grand Rapids gives you updates for one system, whereas opening the app in Manhattan provides a near infinite scroll of bus and train lines—but the user experience remains consistent.
The homogeneity of this spatial representation across apps emerges partly from market competition and from the proliferation of tech-integrated transit experiences. Be it Google Maps, Apple Maps, Uber, or Lyft, a slick and responsive map appears for the user to make decisions about how to get from one place to the next. The 2D map as rendered through an app is easily taken for granted as a way of digitally representing space. They pull symbols and layouts from common street and highway maps, and Google Maps even highlights different locations in a way comparable to that of a tourist guidebook. The locations, of course, always seem to reflect your most recent search history or conversation with a friend about what new restaurant to check out—a personalized uroboros guidebook, where your recommendations never veer from what you already know. This naturalized, static representation of urban space transforms into a manipulable and programmable interface for charting out the best possible route from A to B.
Besides flattening difference, this urban vantage point also centers the self, but only the self as a producer and consumer of ever more data and optimization. Even calling it a self is a misnomer. Individual people are not at the center of the app’s usability—users are. This data-oriented subjectivity is devoid of situated knowledges and assumes a frictionless engagement with your surroundings. You are assumed to be a responsive and reactive dot on a map, charting a course through the urban form, able to navigate any variation in the landscape with ease. The transit rider transforms into the transit user, whose control panel is accessible by smartphone. This subjectivity lines up with the lived experience of an able-bodied, white male subject, as no app tells you if a sidewalk is paved, if a bus stop has enough lighting to see well, or whether you will feel welcome in a neighborhood. Instead, this unencumbered vantage point perpetuates a long history of spatial domination. Apps designed to seamlessly transport goods and people carry on a legacy of white supremacy, imperialism, and capitalist development. Ease of access necessitates the displacement and/or reconciliation of conflicted, contested space. There are major differences, of course, between the colonial conquistador and the contemporary urban “explorer” who wants to move seamlessly through the city, but both presuppose an entitlement to navigating and defining another’s space. Contemporary wayfinding apps obtain their value through this navigational impulse.
At the same time, these apps also attempt to extend ease of use to the disenfranchised, but only if they willingly give up their antagonism toward the transit system as-is. Ease of use, here, is merely an aspiration. Texting a service for the bus’s schedule, constantly refreshing an arrival prediction on Transit, or compulsively switching between Google Maps and Instagram all reorient the discomfort and frustration of being stranded or neglected into the phone-as-pacifier. It doesn’t make the system easier to ride so much as neutralize its sharp edges. And the data that feeds into these apps, and that these apps in turn collect from users, benefit the app's marketability to investment by the same corporations that exploit urban space to their own ends.
Transit, for example, recently formed a partnership with Swiftly to improve real-time passenger information. In the press announcement, Transit’s chief business officer says, “Too often, bad transit data leaves riders stranded.” He explains how transit agencies that use Swiftly experience a “big improvement in data quality, along with a drop in rider complaints.” His comments demonstrate the consumer-choice ideology at the heart of a data-driven approach to transit. Data is meant to liberate the individual consumer, not the worker, human, citizen, or collective. Equity and justice are not the goals for these companies. While they do explicitly list a desire to transition away from car-usage, this stems from the unsustainability of a car-based market rather than any sort of environmental or spatial justice. The goal is to streamline transit and improve its technology in a way that competes with the convenience and market dominance of cars, making it unattractive for urban residents to buy their own vehicles. By obsessing over the possibility of data, though, these companies reify a misrecognition of the origins of public transportation’s problems. Bad transit data does not leave riders stranded. The problem lies in centuries of power brokers adjudicating who gets access to space, and under what circumstances.
A technocratic view might posit that the difficult-to-manage bus system will never work perfectly or in the service of every rider, so it is in everyone’s best interest to make the best of what they have. The status quo, though, is the outcome of decades of austerity and disinvestment across all bus lines. Accurate data and tracking information are merely a smokescreen—behind it, bus lines continue to face precarious futures. The stakes of sustainable and just mobility infrastructures are high, and the demands must have sharp teeth to cut through the data paradigm. Tracking steps in to try and remedy the ills of a long-neglected infrastructure, without dealing with the material and political conditions that created the problems in the first place. Fare eliminations, expanded service, reductions in parking spaces, bus shelters with shade and seating, and rent control (to eliminate the need to move outside a transit commuter zone), all present stronger possibilities for altering public US transportation systems in a way that might not recreate histories of violence.
Tracking solutions also fall into the realm of “optimization,” which is increasingly a city’s stance when faced with dysfunctional infrastructure, population growth, and climate change. This subsumes transit reform under the larger umbrella of techno-utopian urbanism, i.e. smart cities. An ideology more than an actually existing outcome, smart cities envision constant surveillance and data connection that allow for seamless integration of all forms of urban infrastructure and sociality. Smart city approaches posit that unceasing data collection will allow for better urban governance, placing the ideology in a long line of urban planning theories that aspire towards controlling an apprehensible urban form. Cities are heterogeneous and complex systems, however, and most attempts to control urban life assume normative uses of space and neglect, criminalize, or repress other ways of living. In practice, smart city approaches can often serve capitalist and carceral interests. For instance, LinkNYC Wi-Fi ports in New York City, which provide internet and allow people to look up maps or make emergency calls, serve as cameras surveilling nearby movement. During the pandemic, Transit is not just tracking bus arrivals; it is now collecting data on bus and train crowdedness. While this is useful information in a pandemic when physical proximity is an ever-present threat, it is also a form of surveillance. And instead of cities subsidizing increased bus service to prevent crowding or paying people to stay home, we get information that tells us how many bodies are on the bus arriving at our stop.
A timeline of public transportation that positions its downfall squarely in its smart city iteration will not adequately attend to present circumstances. Privatized public transportation is not an unforeseen bogeyman in a dystopian future: it is the very condition of transportation’s emergence in US cities. Most bus and rail lines started as for-profit, privately owned companies. From the Pacific Electric “Red Cars” in Los Angeles to the Chicago Surface Lines streetcar system and the Interborough Rapid Transit lines in New York, these older transportation agencies developed into today’s semi-public systems. And even before a track was laid or a road was paved, European descendants in the United States have always charted routes on stolen land, inscribing the movements of whiteness and capital. Romanticizing bygone periods of public transit funding limits our political imaginary to false narrative: that the past was better than it actually was.
Data may represent the bus, but it is not the bus arriving at the stop. It is not the mom who is late to dropping her kids off at her sister’s house before going to work, because permanent cuts eliminated the bus line on her street. It is not the teenager who wakes up at the crack of dawn to commute ninety minutes to the magnet school, because there are no express bus lanes. It is not the packed train during pre-COVID rush hour, because there isn’t enough service to meet demand. Data will never transcend or remedy the preexisting webs of dispossession, inequality, and racialization that produce urban life as we understand it. What it might do, though, is soften the edges in a way that individualizes risk and responsibility and create a misrecognition of where power and potential truly lie. Tracking data dares riders to see how much neglect they can tolerate, and when paired with a consumerist future of mobility, it dares riders to pick the bus in the first place. For those without another choice, the minutes between buses will expand. They will open an app and see ten-minute waits expand to twenty and then thirty minutes, all while the Uber icon flaunts a three-minute arrival time. They might lean against a wall, while an ever-hotter sun beats down, eventually getting on a bus that used to take them to their home in twenty minutes, but now is only the first leg on a multipart trip to the only affordable neighborhood left.
by Jenny Rodenhouse
by Jenny Rodenhouse
From the company that brought you your favorite doorbell delivery and dash moments comes the new RingGYM , ding-dong! Because we believe stronger communities are the key to safer neighborhoods, RingGYM delivers the same intensity you watch every day through your smart doorbell but now as a workout. Sign up today! Each RingGYMneighborhoodNETWORK features exercises that were crafted from the best local on-camera deliveries, motion-triggered activities, and security history. Get strong, stay safe, and never leave home! From the comfort of inside, follow along with RingGYMBODYBUILDERS as they perform popular workouts outside like “6 Pack with 6 Pack Abs,” “Suspicious Standing,” or “Same-Day Delivery-Squats.” Building RingGYMBODIES to build safer RingGYMneighborhoods.
Under the guise of safety and security, smart doorbells now collect and share motion-triggered activities with the public and law enforcement. Extending the front porch into public space, smart doorbells have created an active broadcasting stage where human bodies bend, drop, place, hide, wait, run, and generate evidence on command by those who can afford to remain inside. Appropriating the "home workout," RingGYM is a parody in app form, but it is also an app that you can actually work out to. Launch RingGYM, navigate the neighborhoodNETWORK workouts, and follow along with a virtual RingGYMBODYBUILDER using your webcam to experience these warped visions of the “outside” — scenes of conjecture, capitalism, and crime. As a form of simulation and imitation, RingGYM creates virtual exercises from real videos collected by smart doorbells to elucidate the power structures, privacies, and labors from outside the home and bring them inwards.
On a server somewhere, a signal is sent. A zero becomes a one. An event is triggered, like clockwork, like always. Everything is as it’s always been for the past nineteen years. Even though there’s no one there to see it. Even though there’s no one there to hear it. Somewhere in the sprawling world of Vana’diel, it rains.
As I—or, not I, the character of I—watch the rain, I think, Maybe I am addicted to loneliness. Yes. That’s how I can finally explain my continued obsession with Vana’diel, the big, empty world of the 2002 online video game Final Fantasy XI. I played it for four years. And then when I couldn’t take any more, after all my online friends had quit and disappeared, and all my new friends existed in the real world, I deactivated my character, careful to avoid the option of deleting her entirely. I’ve continued deactivating and reactivating my account, as though I’m stuck in the “bargaining” part of the grieving cycle, since I first deactivated on Halloween of 2007, after four years of frustration and heartbreak and burnout. I can’t hit delete.
In 2020 I have grieved and thus I have paid an $11.95 monthly fee to once again see Laancer, my Final Fantasy XI character that I created in 2003.
Final Fantasy XI, though its name would imply otherwise, is a stand-alone game known as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG. It’s designed to be played by thousands, and when I logged on for the first time I was overwhelmed by those thousands. They surrounded me; they lagged my computer. But I was determined to fit in, to play this game well and fully, even though MMORPGs are infamous for demanding inordinate amounts of their players’ time and emotional energy, and I was a full-time student trying to balance grades and an underwhelming social life and then, on top of that, this game. I was quickly taken with the world within, called Vana’diel. I was stunned by its scale and beauty. The game doesn’t restrict your movement, even from your very first minutes. As long as you can evade the wandering monsters, you can walk in any direction for whatever reason you like, and I spent four years walking through cities and forests, over mountains and glaciers, on beaches and city streets. This virtual world was teeming with life—thousands of players on every server; communities and cliques; someone to talk to at every turn. And all of it wrapped within lovely Vana’diel.
Vana’diel is a beautiful place, but beauty alone can’t keep players around forever. This world has been slowly dying for years, and every time I return, I am crushed by its emptiness, because I remember when it was full. At its height Final Fantasy XI had thirty-two servers that hosted fifteen thousand to twenty thousand players each. Today the number of servers has fallen to sixteen, and I rarely see more than a thousand players at any one time. Perhaps a thousand players on a server seems like a healthy population, but when you consider how enormous Vana’diel is—when you consider that it seems to take twenty to forty minutes to run across any one area, like a valley or a beach or a city neighborhood, and Vana’diel is made up of hundreds of these areas—you begin to realize that this is a ghost world. Running into another player takes my breath away. I am shaken by this emptiness.
But what also shakes me is that in 2020, when I look around and see a world post-people, my mind creeps toward dark thoughts. There are no histories in Vana’diel, no one to guide the meta-narrative of this game, no virtual historian to greet you and say, There used to be so many people here, but now they’re gone; their human lives got in the way. And so I look around this empty world and think, Is this how a pandemic ends? And maybe I see what could be, the way people leave a world one way or another and it drops out of memory, even as the servers stay on, even as the rain falls.
My problem is that this game is seared into my memory. My problem is that I know it too well. My problem is that I spent four formative years in Vana’diel, beginning in high school and ending in college, four years exploring and learning and memorizing a massive virtual world full of magic and mystery, a world where everyone is beautiful, every wilderness is pristine, every ocean and river is clean and clear, a world where the laws of physics don’t have to exist if it means the world is more fantastical, more phenomenal. Every log-in was an act of devotion to this world. Logging out for the final time, or what I thought might be the final time, back in 2007 felt like the end of a relationship. In the years that followed I talked about this game like I would an ex-lover. It is a part of my history. I knew it too well for it to ever really fade away.
This is why in the midst of a global pandemic, at my own lowest point, I thought again of Vana’diel. My problem, and maybe everyone’s problem, is that in times of stress, great difficulty, and pandemics, my instinct is to shroud myself in familiarity. I want to run away, but I can’t; I want to escape reality, but I can’t; I want to show my face and wear my heart on my sleeve, but I can’t, because faces and hearts and bodies are fragile, and so I pull out my credit card and log back into this place where I’ve now spent so much time, so many years.
The nature of nostalgia is such that when faced with an uncertain future, the most comforting place to be is the past, and virtual worlds offer pristine pasts. After I log in for the first time in four years, I’m struck both by what has changed and what hasn’t. The rules have evolved: so few people play this game now that its original premise of teamwork between players has evolved to become a one-player experience. Instead of other players, now you collaborate with nonplayable characters, or NPCs, summoned by magic spells when needed and sent away when not. But the world itself—every tree, every stone, every blade of grass—is exactly as I remember it. Growth doesn’t exist here, but neither does death or decay. A 2013 New York Times article explains how nostalgia makes a lonely present more tolerable, how it gives meaning to the past, how it makes the future feel more optimistic, and how it dulls the fear of death. But in this model one doesn’t actually physically visit the past. The past is built of memories; a virtual world is built of virtual objects, and as long as the servers are running, they are constant. You can’t go home again, unless you can. The MMORPG pioneer and theorist Richard Bartle refers to MMORPGs as “persistent worlds,” virtual spaces that “continue to exist and develop internally even when there are no people interacting with them,” and that’s exactly what this game has done. It has persisted. Programmers and engineers continue to develop the internal game, to maintain the servers and change the rules when there’s no longer anyone there to play by them, to protect the code that makes the rain. The number of players has fallen, but there are still players there, paying for this world to continue on, and perhaps to be the same sort of haven as it’s been for me. The world that presents itself to me when I log in is emptier than it used to be. Nonetheless, it’s exactly how I remember it, and it’s this sameness, this predictability, that comforts me. Same as it ever was.
Thousands of players have stood on these beaches, plateaus, mountains, and valleys before me, and yet none has left their mark, not a footprint or a name scratched into the bark of a tree. Not a single person has left their mark on this world, and that’s scary, and sad, because a world that does not and in fact cannot be changed by the people living in it is unnatural, it’s hard to fathom. And yet here is a world where rain falls because it was told to, a world where the climate doesn’t change, a world with no pollution or wildfires and definitely, decisively, no pandemics; it’s a world of constants. No change. Persistence.
Despite this persistence, a virtual space is ultimately tenuous and fragile. Earthquakes and hurricanes and wildfires can rock the physical world, but when the clouds and the smoke clear, here is still here, though it has changed and will continue to change. A virtual space is subject to whims, the economy, and user engagement. A massive, complex virtual world can disappear in an instant, and this is a fate that is all but guaranteed. Final Fantasy XI is nineteen years old. The oldest virtual world, MUD1, dates from 1978, and the longest-running modern MMORPGs date from the mid-1990s. But hundreds of other MMORPGs have sprung up and withered away in the time of Final Fantasy XI’s existence, taking with them histories and economies and the alter egos of thousands of players. These disappeared worlds don’t leave ruins or ghosts behind. Unless archived, they are gone, truly gone. Maybe that’s why playing this old, empty game feels so special and so vital. I need to see it again before it’s gone. I need to hear it and traverse it before it disappears, as it inevitably will.
I returned to this world because I was looking for familiarity, and I find that both in the world itself and in my character Laancer, the virtual version of me. It feels as though at last this world belongs to me alone, and that it’s a sort of safe space to be this version of myself, this avatar of a younger me, high school me. I want to protect her from what’s to come. I want her to be a hero, to wear the shiniest armor, to swing the sharpest sword. I want her to thrive. I want her to be everything that I wasn’t then, and that I’m not now. Laancer has existed in Vana’diel for eighteen years—in the real world she would be old enough to drive a car. She would be in high school. She would be falling in love for the first time, perhaps. But what is “real” in a virtual world? I can see Laancer, I can control her actions, I can make her wave hello and goodbye to me; is she not real? After all this time she has become a person in my life, like any other I’d see or hug in the physical world. Is it possible that what makes her so precious to me, her connection to me, is what makes her real?
I imagine what it’s like for her to see and feel and live in this world in a way that I can’t, because I’m real, and she and Vana’diel aren’t. What she sees isn’t a virtual world, or a designed world, or a “fake” world; it’s simply the world. She has no sense of calamity or instability. She knows nothing about servers and code and pandemics. All she knows is Vana’diel and its mountains and valleys and clouds and waves. She began her existence in a perfect world and, though she doesn’t know it, she will end her existence there too. She is blessed to not know time. She is blessed to not know death.
But I know death. Virtual spaces are tombs, locked spaces with bodies inside that we can’t see unless we crack the door and look. Vana’diel is a tomb. Laancer’s body is buried there, my avatar who doesn’t age, who goes where I tell her to go, who submits to my stubbornness and thus has lived in this world for eighteen years, far longer than the real me has lived in any one place since childhood. I move from state to state, city to city, house to house, and she remains right where I left her, waiting for me. Our world is churning and in flux, but Vana’diel is frozen; the servers are awake, the data fire. The rhythms of the world are steady, and nothing churns here except the deep virtual oceans, devoid of life, exempt from death. Laancer will never die, and she is ever patient. After every log-out she will wait for me for as long as it takes.
In the course of spending hundreds of hours playing Final Fantasy XI through my avatar of Laancer, a unique relationship has developed between the two of us. She isn’t merely a virtual self; rather, she is a distinct version of me who, through her own history and actions and experiences within the role-playing context of a virtual world, has grown away from me into her own distinct self. This game wouldn’t have the hold on me that it does if it weren’t for her, because she makes the relationship between player and game personal, intimate, and emotionally resonant. She is the constant upon all constants. Unlike anything else in this game, I gave her a name, and she is the one who interprets moves through the world, because she is part of it. I, the player, have no control over any other aspect of this world; it is only her that I control. It is she that has taken on the burden of representing my physical self in this virtual space.
Richard Bartle says of our virtual world alter egos, “By selecting an avatar, you’re choosing how others will see you superficially. By playing a character using that avatar, you’re experimenting with aspects of your personality. By emphasizing and de-emphasizing facets of the character’s personality and your own personality, eventually the two lock together and you have a persona.” But I’m not sure this is what has happened with the two of us. It seems the opposite has occurred: Laancer and I have separated like twins in a womb, whether due to time or distance or some other phenomenon of neglect. I imagine that over time she has become her own person, with her own experiences of this virtual world. The relationships she had with other players were more genuine than the relationships I had with them. I knew something she didn’t—that behind those characters, somewhere in the physical world, a person, a human was controlling them, and I didn’t know that human; I couldn’t see them or hear their voice; I knew nothing of them except for what they chose to tell me and how they chose to shape their virtual bodies. Laancer, however, didn’t know that. Those relationships were real. There was no one else there but for the virtual bodies that she could see. Their disappearances hurt, but they were immediate and total. First they were there, then they weren’t. Only I knew that the players behind them were still in my world, somewhere.
It’s no wonder that in the midst of dysphoria for the real world, the allure of the virtual world’s persistence, its population of sterile avatars, and its accessibility offers a tempting redefining experience of nostalgia, even if that virtual world has aged and lost its luster. As more and more people are spending their time in quarantine reconnecting with old friends, it makes sense that I or any other gamer would seek out the virtual selves with whom we’ve lost touch. Perhaps sinking back into a video game that I’ve begun and quit and begun again isn’t the most radical act of self-care, but it’s a way to once again see a version of myself that I designed and named nearly twenty years ago, when I was still a child and had the rest of my life to design my own self, my physical self. Now when I see this avatar, I see not only Laancer but also myself as I was then, and I feel a distinct nostalgia for who I was when I was seventeen, and who I thought I would be at thirty-four. The chasm between those ideas seems not so vast when I look at Laancer.
Despite how shaky the ground might feel, for now it’s solid as I, as Laancer, traverse this world. I depend on muscle memory to guide my hands on the keyboard, to find the right paths, to move from one virtual city to the next, and my memory doesn’t fail me. Everything I need to live in this world is still there within me, as though I’ve been there, as though my own feet have touched this ground. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by sadness, and sometimes that feeling is so overpowering that I have to log out, I have to return to the real world and all its turbulence, because I can’t stand the sight of this world so empty when it used to be so full, so lively, and so inhabited, and I can’t help but think, Any world can die, even my own.
I watch digital trees shake in an invented wind, and I think that this fear for the persistence of a virtual world can be attributed at least in part to a similar fear for the physical world, under assault from so many different angles. It isn’t simply that I’m afraid Vana’diel will one day disappear, but that the same thing could happen to Earth: as humans’ fingers hover over Vana’diel’s nuke buttons, so do humans have control over the destruction of the physical world. Indeed, Earth is falling apart all around us, and as the rain falls in Vana’diel, I think, Not you, too. You were supposed to be perfect.
I last reactivated my account in 2016, when I was in graduate school and thinking again about beauty. I had barely realized how much I’d missed Vana’diel, and how much I’d missed Laancer, but when I saw her and the world again for the first time since 2007, I nearly drowned in the nostalgia and the grief. I saw the world, documented the most beautiful bits of it for my graduate thesis, and then deactivated my account again. I didn’t dare actually play the game. I quit that long ago. The sword remained in its scabbard.
The grief now is more about the real world than this virtual world, and it’s overpowering, it’s a world quarantined and catching fire. Now there’s a drive not merely to see Vana’diel, but to feel a part of this world again, to inhabit it and feel again like I belong, the way I did more than ten years ago when I played this game for hours a day. It’s as though the front door of my house has been loose on its hinges for a very long time, and I’ve finally noticed, and I’m picking out a screwdriver to fix it. I belong in this world. It is a part of me. There are ghosts here, but they’re not the ghosts of avatars, they’re the ghosts of my own past. They’re the ex-boyfriend and friend I used to play this game with—the first I broke up with, the second was killed by a truck that ran a red light. They’re the house I was living in when I first created Laancer, rented by my mom for the two of us after my parents’ divorce. They’re my lonely dorm room. They’re my most vulnerable moments. Since reactivating Laancer, all these people and places have appeared in my dreams. Nostalgia is mixing itself with trauma. The digital rain falls mainly on the pain.
But that’s how it is when you have a decades-long relationship with a virtual world, and a global pandemic has chased you back into it. That’s the nature of grief, and of nostalgia. If nostalgia can protect me from pain, and ease my anxiety about death, even though the place I feel nostalgic for is itself slowly dying, then I will go there. I will embed myself in it and find who I was, who I am, and who I might be when this is all over. I will find the persistence that will keep me safe.
It’s raining again. This time, though, I’m not alone. There’s someone else here, a stranger, another avatar with a human behind her. That human could be anywhere else in the world; their life could be exactly like mine or completely different; they could be my age or older or younger; they could be sick or healthy; they could be happy or sad. But they are here in Vana’diel, and for just a moment we make some sort of trans-world eye contact: our digital eyes meet, and I imagine what the human eyes behind them might be like, blue or brown, expressive or meek, open or closed. I wave. They wave back. And then they’re gone, off toward somewhere else, somewhere where it’s not raining, where the sun is shining and everything is as it’s always been, and maybe always will be, forever.
An Elegy to the Nob Hill Theatre (And Other Places I’ll Never Go)
by Sam Moore
An Elegy to the Nob Hill Theatre (And Other Places I’ll Never Go)
by Sam Moore
The Nob Hill Theatre—a San Francisco institution that once showed gay porn, and that later became a porn-library-cum-strip-club—closed down in August 2018. As it was closing, queer publication contributors up and down the United States lamented its passing, calling it a “living and vital space” (Ryan Kost) and “another nail in the coffin of gay San Francisco” (Shelly Steward). I never went there when it was open, and now I’ll never get to go there myself. However, the Nob Hill Theatre is kept alive on screen, allowing the moviegoer to visit it vicariously and to understand where it was and why it mattered.
I first saw the theater in Take One (1977)—Wakefield Poole’s docufantasy about porn, performance, and the Nob Hill—on my laptop, despite several attempts to track down a physical copy. In the film, a man arrives to San Francisco from out of town and buys a membership card, which he’s told is a requirement for admission into the Nob Hill Theatre. This simple act reinforces what made the space so important—not just for Poole as a filmmaker, but for the theater’s patrons as well. For the unnamed gay man who’s travelled across the country to get to San Francisco, the Nob Hill is one of the first places to go. It offers safety and intimacy for queer people who want to see themselves represented on screen.
This scene, which only lasts for a few minutes, foregrounds a lot of what was important about the Nob Hill and about the gay porn films that were screened there, like Boys in the Sand (1971). These films blend porn and art; they aren’t designed only to arouse, and some of them, like Fred Halsted’s L.A. Plays Itself (1972), aren’t arousing at all. Instead, they depict queer bodies, as well as the act of gay sex, to explore themes of place, power, violence, and utopia. In the 1970s, these films even crossed over into the mainstream (Boys in the Sand, for instance, was advertised in the New York Times and reviewed by Variety), with a wave of gay adult cinema following in their wake. They paid attention to queer histories that mainstream films of the time (and since) often ignored, making it clear that history was just as likely to be made in a bathhouse or porno theater as it was to be created anywhere else. Speaking of the Capri Cinema, an adult theater in New York, one man said to Samuel R. Delany, “I learned half the stuff I know in this place. People told me here how not to get AIDS—and I sure don’t got it. I get tested just about every year.”
These films are also tied together by queer geography; the idea that certain spaces, imbued with a queer presence or history—like the Nob Hill or Fire Island Pines—play a role in how we begin to form and understand our queer identities. This geographic specificity is something that’s seen most clearly in Poole’s breakthrough film, Boys in the Sand. In describing Fire Island, and the importance it had as the setting for Boys in the Sand, Poole says in the director’s commentary that “a lot of people didn’t know what it was like. They had heard of it, but never seen it.” For most queers who weren’t part of the wealthy gay Fire Island milieu, the space existed more in the imagination than in reality. Boys in the Sand straddles the line between offering up the fantasy and showing the place as it really was. It draws on the heat of the island and propels its narrative and theme through the act of cruising: making Fire Island the kind of place where there’s possibility around every corner. But this possibility and the idea of Fire Island as a fantasy space are rooted in the way that Poole continually returns to the water as a site of (re)birth, from the protagonist Casey Donovan’s emergence from the waves in the film’s opening, to magical creation of a boyfriend in a swimming pool in the second section of the narrative.
In contrast, Halsted’s L.A. Plays Itself is defined by stark, brutal reality. The film is divided into two sections, each with its own geography. The beginning of the film—after an opening shot that tellingly highlights the city limits of Los Angeles—takes place in open, natural spaces: defined by trees, views of hills, and water (one of the few places where any sex takes place). These features exist in contrast to the urbanism that dominates the film’s second half; Halsted transitions between the two sections by bulldozing the natural world away, replaced by a sprawling, dangerous cityscape. Halsted’s Los Angeles exists in fragments. The people get lost among crowds; sex scenes are dimly lit and full of danger. There’s no hope of escapism here, just the same echoing voices and anonymous faces, looking for salvation in all the wrong places.
Boys in the Sand, Take One, and L.A. Plays Itself share a sexual imagination that’s rooted in the public sphere. In these films, sexual encounters—often outside the home, on beaches, or among the trees, sometimes with the possibility of being seen by others—highlight how readily available public sex seemed to be. But their geographies are vastly different, and the sexual identities that they generate are different as well. Take One presents public sex spaces like the Nob Hill as escapist, utopian, and safe in a way that the rest of world wasn’t (and sometimes still isn’t). L.A. Plays Itself envisions Los Angeles as full of queer sexual experience—but here, violence lurks around every corner. From dirty novels people find on the back of a Greyhound bus, to the ubiquity of dirty movie theaters, or graffiti that screams the word GAY, sex is everywhere, but Halsted asks if violence is the price that’s paid for it. Finally, Boys in the Sand shows Fire Island carrying a mood of possibility, even as its offset by the spectre of loneliness. Fire Island is shown as a literal escape from the rest of the world—one where fantasy is only ever a moment away.
For potential thesis research, a (straight) friend of mine once went to a screening of L.A. Plays Itself in Aarhus. He said that the experience of watching it in a theater was strange, as he was always aware that people around him were getting off, even during the film’s more violent moments. He said that watching it in a theater with others changed how the film worked, and the extent to which it felt like porn. Listening to his story, I was struck by the fascination that a straight person could have for gay porn; he said that the film was about everything that interested him: critical geography, power, violence, sex, and class.
The consumption of porn has moved from public to private spaces as technology has changed (the rise of home video and the internet as a source of pornographic pleasure). This change in porn consumption mirrors the changes of queer life itself; the closure of queer public spaces (including the Nob Hill) forces queer sexuality into the private sphere. While this offers the safety of the home, it also turns queerness—pleasure seeking—into a more solitary experience, something mediated by screens and technology. Queer geography itself has changed, as cruising and the exploration of sexual identity have largely moved to apps and websites. The consumption of porn reflects this; it has been a long time since Casey Donovan emerged from the sea in Boys in the Sand, and now, instead of desire being informed by the water itself, it’s informed by an image of it. You can fast-forward, rewind, or skip past online porn—nestled among ads for Viagra, chatrooms, and hot singles in your area. The purpose of these 1970s films isn’t necessarily erotic, but as the current online pornographic landscape centers only sex, these older films feel almost like relics. While sexually explicit films with straight people like In the Realm of the Senses (1976) find their way into the Criterion Collection, queer films with pornographic elements don’t have the same fate.
I started asking friends of mine where I could find 1970s gay porn films. One friend suggested searching Pornhub to track them down, but they proved elusive—they showed up piecemeal in a way characteristic of the early internet. A Joe Gage film I still haven’t seen, L.A. Tool and Die (1979), was on Pornhub in four small parts, reminding me of how people used to upload recently aired TV shows onto YouTube. Films like these aren’t something that I’ve ever seen myself in; the men in them are too masculine, muscular, and sculpted like perfectly made objects of desire; they broadcast their S&M desires through cock rings, shorthand in a language that I never learned to speak. I don’t watch these films so that I can learn to speak a new language, but instead to understand the things that are left unsaid. The lack of dialogue in a film like Boys in the Sand is striking; it tries to articulate things entirely through bodies, the way they join together and move through landscapes. It challenges the idea of silence, of what it means to refuse—or be unable—to speak. I’ve been silent a lot in the past, and that’s the thing that echoes through these histories, the attempt to find new ways to speak. As Adrienne Rich writes in “Cartographies of Silence,”
Silence can be a plan
the blueprint to a life
It is a presence
it has a history a form
Do not confuse it
with any kind of absence
“You don’t wanna mess around with those people.” This line echoes throughout the latter parts of L.A. Plays Itself, voiced over images of violence against queer men. The voice may or may not belong to a cruising trucker who kills the men he picks up and who engages in an unseen conversation with his next lay/victim throughout the city. The film challenges the narrative that aggression or violence is staged as part of sexual performance; here, sex and violence are distinct from each other—the fragments of violence that appear in the film’s second half are never shown through the lens of sex, just the act of violence itself. In fact, there’s almost no sex at all in L.A. Plays Itself. The final, masturbatory shot of the film is almost like a challenge; a sole performer standing like a statue, daring viewers to find pleasure in the things that they’ve just seen.
I didn’t find L.A. Plays Itself to be a pleasurable thing to watch; it wasn’t sexy or erotic. But I keep thinking about the story I was told about that screening of it in a theater in Aarhus, with the audience getting off to these fragments of violence. L.A. Plays Itself is in MoMA’s archive, and it’s difficult not to wonder if audiences there would respond in the same way, or if MoMA is less likely to let patrons get their dicks out in the middle of a screening. The institutional legitimacy given to L.A. Plays Itself is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to the afterlife of films like Boys in the Sand, which are often left waiting for a niche company to remaster them, constantly fighting the same battle when it comes to being taken seriously. Running against this is the utopian narrative of the internet, a boundless archive and an unchained id that throws anything and everything at you in the same breath. The transition to the internet for porn mirrors the move from theaters to home video, removing these films from the wider context of theaters.
If you search for, say, Boys in the Sand on almost any streaming or download site—barring the ones that specifically archive queer work—you will find nothing to differentiate it from the countless other videos that their search engines offer up. Maybe they’ll sometimes mention the year in brackets, or tag it as “vintage,” but the film itself, and everything that it stood for and accomplished, gets lost in the white noise of the internet. As scholar Linda Williams writes, in such contexts, “the text’s temporal context is even less apparent,” and the “sociological or historical impact recedes into the background.” L.A. Plays Itself gets called a “~ hot classic ~” on one website, even though for the majority of its runtime, it feels deliberately unerotic.
The changing porn landscape feels like a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same. One of the most common and popular ways to find porn online was the Tumblr porn blog—now deceased, as much as anything can be online. The way it presented porn echoes one of the earliest forms of erotic cinema. Where Tumblr has GIFs, early porn films had loops: short films that played, like the title suggests, on a loop, generally in coin-operated peep show booths. There was no emphasis on story or specificity, just an endless repetition of erotic scenes in a short timeframe. The GIF is the digital resurrection of the loop, which takes a fragment of a fragment and repeats it endlessly.
I searched for some of these 1970s filmmakers—Wakefield Poole, Fred Halsted, Michael Zen—on Tumblr, putting their names into a search bar. I already know this won’t give me as many answers as it would have if I tried a few years ago. Very few GIFs from the films appear as results, and there are no real captions for the films, just a few cursory pieces of information in the tags: names of actors, like “Peter Fisk,” or a description of the actions, like “spit.”
My experience of working through queer identity took place mostly on the internet; I found that the availability of information online reminded me that I wasn’t entirely alone. Search engines are vital, helping give coherent answers to vague, half-formed questions. The internet is how I found books like Giovanni’s Room and films like My Own Private Idaho—a twenty-first-century equivalent to the young man in L.A. Plays Itself who finds dirty literature in a Greyhound. Online, I saw other people, strangers, asking the same questions that I was asking back then. And I hope that now, I’m able to provide some answers.
Searching the internet for answers reminds me of Casey Donovan cruising through Fire Island in the “Poolside” section of Boys in the Sand. The whole world seems to be at his fingertips, and yet there’s nobody else there, no one to talk to. For all of the possibility and utopian beauty of the geography of the Pines, there’s something about it that feels isolated, like discovering desire alone in a room, watching something and clinging to it like a secret. Online—whether it’s porn, activism, or self-discovery—we’re together, yet alone. The way that we consume porn, especially queer porn, is something that captures the movement from public to private spheres, from communal to individual approaches to identity.
For porn, this public–private transition is about space, and what the spaces that we get off in might mean. That’s why I keep returning to the locations of these films. Boys in the Sand, a film that helped bring queer sexuality into the mainstream, could only ever take place amongst the beauty of Fire Island, just like Take One, obsessed as it is with fantasy and voyeurism, would need to have its climax in a dirty movie theater. The presence of the Nob Hill looms large in Take One, from the opening moments where the film’s name is presented on the marquee; the theater is where these fantasies are screened for the first time, and desire seems to creep off the screen and into the room itself. The places where we discover and define our sexual identities in part define our communities. Places like the Nob Hill are shown in Take One as a sort of sanctuary, a “safe space” before the term fell into popular use—from a character going to the Nob Hill immediately after arriving to San Francisco, to men holding hands en route to or from the theater. Simple acts turn locations like the Nob Hill into socially significant places. Emphasizing the importance of Fire Island in Boys in the Sand or the Nob Hill in Take One, is a way to, following bell hooks, “identify the spaces where we begin the process of re-vision.”
In Adrienne Rich’s description, “Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.” The process of researching and writing this essay is, in a way, an act of re-vision. I look back through decades of queer cinema and porn to see old texts in a new way. Instead of purely thinking about their representative or erotic functions, I think of how they exist on the new world of the internet, where everything is available, everything is lost, and everything can be (re)-discovered.
Samuel R. Delany writes, “The nostalgic approach sees all these silent red and green and purple window gates, these dead and wordless movie marquees, as the end of an era.” I found out that the Nob Hill had closed down while I was researching this essay, creating the strange feeling of saying goodbye to a place that I never got to go to. One of the first shots in Take One is the marquee of the Nob Hill, reading, in block caps:
This is how I’ll always remember the Nob Hill, captured for a moment in time that’s so specific that you immediately know when it’s from. Perhaps it makes sense to say goodbye to a place when it already seems haunted. The Nob Hill is captured in Take One in a way that feels perfect to me, a kind of refuge, a place that, yes, offers sex, but also safety. It’s a place to discover who you are and what you want. The internet is, in a way, a kind of sanctuary; for all of the talk about the echo chambers that pervade internet discourse, there’s something freeing about being able to log on to a social network and be surrounded by people who, in some ways, are like you. Even if the internet can be a lonely place that creates a kind of disconnect, its screen-mediated interaction and intimacy can also make you feel less alone. Whether online or in theaters, early gay porn reflects the world that queer men inhabited; Fire Island was—and is—real, and meant something, even to the people who couldn’t go there. The memory and power of these places risk getting lost, as films like these already get drowned out by endless landscape of online porn videos.
There’s something tragic about discovering these films after so long, when many of the people and places they show are already gone. To me, these films feel like historic documents punctuated by loss. To watch them now, to look at them through the eyes of re-vision, is to understand where we’ve come from, and the people, places, and things that have been lost along the way.
by Teresa Braun
by Teresa Braun
Virtual Queerality is an ongoing VR project created by Teresa Braun (Egregious Philbin) that explores the fluidity of queer identity through participatory research, audio interviews, and creative collaborations with transgender and nonbinary artists. It utilizes the unique visual, somatic, and temporal characteristics of VR to build new models for queer storytelling that enable more varied expressions of self. The work of each artist is contained within a hallway that includes their images, video, audio, and avatars collaboratively designed to reflect how they imagine themselves in virtual space. The project is iterative and will eventually be a site for drag performances and queer meetups in addition to serving as a living archive of queer oral histories.
Use WASD or the arrow keys to navigate and the left mouse button or Q and E to turn. Feel free to interact with the videos and audio clips included throughout the experience. Additionally, you may find yourself sharing the space with any other users who happen to be visiting the experience simultaneously; if that's the case, please be cognizant of whether or not your microphone is active.
Breaking Ground: Exhuming Cultural Identity in VRChat
by Lydia Jessup
Breaking Ground: Exhuming the Media Life Cycles of VRChat
by Lydia Jessup
Research assistance provided by Matt Romein
We believe that media never dies. ... It decays, rots, reforms, remixes, and gets historicized, reinterpreted, and collected.
—Garnet Hertz and Jussi Parikka, “Five Principles of Zombie Media”
The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten.
—Teju Cole, Open City
The first time two people accidentally bumped into each other in cyberspace may have been in the 1970s, when artist Myron Krueger grazed his colleague’s hand virtually. A monitor with a composite video feed displayed the scene, splicing together live footage of Krueger’s hand with footage of his colleague’s hand in another room. The result was a familiar awkwardness: it was as if they had touched in real life. This experimental setup became VIDEOPLACE, a media project that marked virtual space as distinct from the physical world. In later work building on this early experiment, Krueger conceived of a virtual “megaenvironment” that could include hundreds of users interacting at once. Krueger’s work prefigured William Gibson’s “cyberspace” or Neal Stephenson’s “Metaverse,” before imagery of persistent, fully immersive virtual worlds (e.g. Snow Crash, The Matrix, and Ready Player One) became mainstream.
Decades later, the megaenvironment is no longer speculation, but has been brought to life by several companies. One such platform is VRChat, a leading social virtual reality (VR) platform that, in 2020, saw an average of more than eleven thousand active users at any given time. More recently, VRChat collaborated with the HBO show Lovecraft Country and received attention for a user-created, 3D version of the popular video game Among Us. During the coronavirus lockdown, VRChat’s usership went up by 19 percent in March 2020 and increased by another 24 percent in April 2020. For people who don’t have VR or gaming hardware, there is a robust streaming community on YouTube and Twitch with millions of followers and subscribers. Media outlets focus on the extremes of the platform—looking at how users proliferate racist memes on VRChat, but also at how users develop networks of care. (For instance, players once came to the aid of another player experiencing a real-life medical emergency).
VRChat is not a game—there are few rules and no set objectives. Like the real world, it contains a mixture of public and private spaces. It is completely free to play and can be experienced in “desktop mode” on a PC or in virtual reality using a headset. When you log on for the first time, you are given a default “home” world with a portal to the central world in VRChat, “The Hub.” Users jump from world to world using a menu system or portals, which function like hyperlinks on the web. The environment of VRChat is surprisingly shoddy in some ways—the graphics look rudimentary compared to other platforms I’ve used, and the menu system is not easily navigable, constantly providing too much information and too many options without a clear hierarchy.
When using VRChat, you embody an avatar, usually humanoid. In VR mode, you wear a headset and use handheld controllers that track your body movements. If you look down while embodying an avatar, you’ll see your feet move. You “walk” using a process called inverse kinematics that guesses what your feet should be doing, based on the movements of your headset and controllers. Look at your hands—often the first thing people do when they enter a VR environment—and you’ll see fingers (or perhaps paws or wings, depending on your avatar) that are tracked to the controllers you are holding in real life. Lift your thumb off the controller, and your avatar will give a thumbs up. Many worlds have mirrors, so you can see what your avatar looks like and increase the feeling of embodiment. You wave, and your avatar waves back; you talk, and your avatar opens its mouth.
Started in a dorm room in 2014, the platform launched publicly on the video game store Steam in 2017. Since then, it has raised a total of $15.2 million from investors, including industry leader HTC. The content is mostly user-generated and decentralized, customized by creators outside of the platform and then uploaded through VRChat’s software development kit (SDK). There is no official economy in VRChat—this means that there are no in-game microtransactions to buy accessories or special hair for your avatar. Without a formal economy, the only thing to do in VRChat is socialize. There is no text-based chat function, so most people communicate through voice, although it is common and socially acceptable for avatars to communicate through gestures and “emotes” instead. Like Krueger’s feeling of virtual intimacy, interacting with someone in VRChat feels as if you are actually in the same room with them. With spatial audio and tracked gestures, a high five or a hug feels quite intimate, even without the sensation of touch.
We can trace VRChat’s lineage back in time, from web-based interactive environments like Second Life and Habbo Hotel in the 2000s and massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) beginning in the late 1990s, to text-based bulletin board systems (BBSes) and multiuser dungeons (MUDs) popular in the 1980s, and eventually to the first multiplayer computer games like Empire and early research forays into virtual reality like VIDEOPLACE in the 1970s. Although a list of this kind implies clean breaks from one technology to the next, this is an illusion—history is never quite so neat and linear.
It is more common to study the history of physical spaces, than to study the history of digital spaces. This is partly because the internet is still so young, and partly because the interconnected layers of history are easier to spot in our physical world. As scholar Kazys Varnelis writes, “new infrastructures do not so much supersede old ones as ride on top of them, forming physical and organizational palimpsests—telephone lines follow railways lines, and over time these pathways have not been diffused, but rather etched more deeply into the urban landscape” (emphasis mine).
I argue here that the same is true for cyberspace. Palimpsests can be found in virtual worlds, although different excavation methods are needed. The term palimpsest originally comes from a writing surface that has been erased and reused, resulting in traces of the previous text showing through. Applying the palimpsest metaphor here goes beyond taking VRChat on its own terms, examining its complicated histories at a moment when social immersive spaces are at once derided as base and marketed as innovative. What might we learn when we reveal the messy layers of these temporal entanglements within VRChat?
We will look simultaneously at how VRChat is written on top of other media, speculate on how it will eventually be rewritten, and discuss what happens in between. The first section, “Collect, Remix, Recycle,” reveals how users recombine digital materials to create new virtual spaces in VRChat. The second section, “Renew, Regenerate, Update,” discusses new experiences, identities and communities that are emerging in these spaces. Finally the third section, “Ebb and Flow,” speculates on how the spaces and communities of VRChat will eventually break down.
Collect, Remix, Recycle
VRChat is not a frictionless, beautifully rendered, or straightforward experience. Instead, VRChat is an assemblage of ideas and creations from both amateurs and experts all over the world. Many worlds are collages of unexpected artifacts, amateurish compositions, and DIY aesthetics. When you enter a world, there might be a note on the wall from its builder—something like user MechatronicDragon’s note, “This world is currently retired as working on other projects but thanks for visiting!”—or there might be a list of their other social media handles. In VRChat, the line is blurred between creator and consumer. Like artist Hito Steyerl’s “imperfect cinema,” VRChat “insists upon its own imperfection, is popular but not consumerist, committed without becoming bureaucratic.”
And for DIY creators, there’s plenty of material on the internet to download, rip, copy, merge, reformat, and write new stories with. Individual creators are not obligated to come up with new designs for virtual spaces—in fact, they have little incentive (and often may not have the upfront time, money, or skill required) to create a new visual language from scratch. This is likely why so many VRChat worlds are full of bootleg pop culture: it can feel like squishing all of the internet into one room and then stepping inside. As game designer Bennett Foddy has said, today’s digital refuse “vastly outnumbers and outweighs the things that are fresh and untainted and unused. When everything around us is cultural trash, trash becomes the new medium, the lingua franca of the digital age.”
But reusing trash is called recycling, an essential characteristic of palimpsests. In other words, makers and amateurs don’t start from scratch—they collect, recycle, and remix what already exists. Scholars of “discard studies” tell us that when you start diving into waste, complex organizational systems and classification schemes quickly emerge. In this environment, digital trash is “no longer ‘matter out of place,’” as Dietmar Offenhuber writes of waste that has entered the trash collection cycle, following a phrase popularized by anthropologist Mary Douglas. Nor does it breach the symbolic order, as in Offenhuber’s interpretation of Douglas’s writings on dirt. Instead, through the new context of VRChat, creators generate meaning out of virtual debris.
Digital artifacts reveal their creators’ intentions and evince larger social contexts. One such artifact is the VRChat Home Kit. The Home Kit is a free 106-MB package that contains both a prebuilt environment and a disassembled version, which can be constructed in the game engine Unity after following a YouTube tutorial. The Home Kit is a rectangular room with a balcony, but without windows or doors. (This can cause many design issues in VR such as: What will you put on the other side of a wall, when you are building in a void?) There is, however, a Home Kit setup that perfectly fits a VRChat portal. The YouTube voiceover walks through placing the short circular table, adding a piece of code that will make the couch and small square stools “sittable,” affixing materials on the walls so they appear wallpapered, and applying “wooden” paneling on the balcony. Each time the home world is uploaded, individual creators can add different 3D assets they make or find online. In this way, the Home Kit gets imbued with cultural artifacts from other 3D and 2D virtual spaces. It is quickly repurposed by new users to become an imaginary, impossible, but sometimes pretty ordinary home.
Since VRChat provides no standard world, the Home Kit is significant—prioritizing an aesthetic of comfort, paradoxically in a world you can’t actually touch. VRChat’s provision of the Home Kit is in line with other new technologies that aim to integrate with domestic spaces—from Apple II to Microsoft Bob to Facebook Horizon. A home is a place where you feel at ease, an intimate space where technology allows you to more easily express your own personality, to explore your own interests, and to casually hang out with friends. By providing this prefab home, VRChat is signaling that it, too, is this kind of space.
VRChat is also a place where you can remix your body, a practice that started as soon as the internet became popular, from screen names to the first graphical avatars. This is the draw—or perhaps the reason to stay—for numerous users I have spoken with. Unlike many platforms that have in-game avatar creation—with hair, skin, and clothing options limited to what the company has designed—VRChat provides avatar customization with anything you can make and upload. Pop culture imagery, memes, and video game characters proliferate in avatar worlds (essentially free avatar stores), where you can embody hundreds of different avatars, like trying on new clothes in a dressing room.
I learned about the practice of “kitbashing” when I met Emily Makar, a VRChat user, in late 2019. The term comes from scale-model building, and it’s essentially the practice of mixing model pieces from different kits. Creators do this with digital avatars as well. Makar explained to me that she has several avatars that she uses on a regular basis, most of which have the same “base” avatar that she modifies with different clothes and hair. She told me how she made the legs shorter on the base avatar to be closer to her own proportions. Another time when I ran into her, she showed me a new dress she was proud of (“Cloth physics are a lot of fun, I love them dearly,” she said). As she spun around, the dress floated up and swirled around her. Out of context this would seem like no big deal—we’ve all seen more advanced visual effects. But like most creators in VRChat, Makar didn’t start out as a professional 3D modeler. She learned to make her own clothes from YouTube tutorials and Twitch streams, allowing for constant collecting, remixing, and recycling of her virtual body, and thus her identity.
Engaging with identity as bricolage is not new to digital spaces, but the implications of VRChat’s environment and avatar system are important to understand for two reasons. First, in VR mode, avatars feel fully embodied, which is not possible on 2D platforms, creating a new experience of being “online” in a social setting. Second, VRChat has launched at a time when people with financial means can access powerful gaming computers and free 3D modeling and game engine software, as well as hours of tutorials just a click away. It’s as if anyone could build a website and then live inside it, or sketch a character and then have their body turn into it.
Renew, Regenerate, Update
Within this recycled and kitbashed environment flow new human experiences—identities, communities, and roles. As Nathan Jurgenson argues, many people once believed in “digital dualism”—the illusion that the digital and physical are completely separate spheres. This separation allowed the internet to be mythologized as disembodied—a space where racism, sexism, ageism, or ableism do not exist. VRChat falls somewhat into this rosy-tinted, early-internet utopianism that lacks moderation and historical context. Yet it also escapes these trappings, serving as a public forum of identity expression.
When you first join VRChat as a “Visitor,” you are assigned a robot avatar. The first time I walked into a public world with this avatar, I was caught off guard by how impactful the embodiment could be. I felt safe in public in a way I had not felt since puberty: thanks to my genderless robot costume, no one could tell I was a woman. I felt exhilarated, liberated, and powerful. At the same time, I was suddenly afraid to speak because I knew it would ruin my cover.
Most people I’ve met on VRChat simply believed whatever version of myself I presented without question. It is very uncommon to be asked where you are from, and knowing someone’s “real” identity is in some ways irrelevant in this new, decontextualized space. And yet our virtual identities are very much grounded in and interwoven with our IRL lives. I heard this from many people, including Emily Makar. She explained that whether universal or rooted in her trans identity, her VRChat avatar has become central to understanding herself. In fact, when she closes her eyes and pictures her own self-image, she sees her avatar. Without superseding her actual body, her avatar has become “just another version of who I am.”
I also spoke with a user named SolarApple, who described how VRChat has helped her better understand her queer sexuality. She started to find people in VRChat “really attractive, not in appearances but just in the way that they talked, their personalities, the way that I interacted with them. I don’t know how it happened, but I guess me learning that, like, there are so many ways that people can be attractive, I started dropping my borders in real life.”
Identities also form around communities within VRChat itself. Adventurer Hall is one such community that hosts weekly challenges to explore a new world, to find an item, or to complete a task. The Adventurer Hall home world is full of souvenirs from their expeditions: a mini Charmander, a Furby, a corgi that strolls around the space, and books and photos that line the walls. Other communities form around interests rather than around activities. There are groups centered around sleeping, furries, loli avatars, sign language, religion, Pokémon, role-playing, and fandom. These communities develop in between the seams of VRChat worlds, even spilling onto internet chat services like Discord and Reddit. Rather than limiting affordances (think of Twitter’s character limit or Facebook’s limited reaction set), VRChat allows communities to make their own rules and norms on the platform as well as off. (For example, I was kicked out of the Adventurer Hall Discord a few months ago because I didn’t complete enough quests.)
These groups—and the libertarian-esque, anti-aesthetic, semi-utopian bent of the platform—harken back to the BBS groups and MUDs of the early internet. At this time in the late 1980’s and early 1990s, there was no status or money associated with being online. In prebrowser text-based interfaces, groups formed around BBSes and MUDs. Internet pioneer Marisa Bowe helped run ECHO, one of the first BBSes geared toward women. Marisa loved ECHO because it was DIY. Online anyone could be anyone and post on bulletin boards on any topic. As we now see happening in VRChat, new communities, roles, and identities grow rapidly out of this kind of tabula rasa that the early internet afforded. But, following her career in public access television, Bowe foresaw the eventual commercialization of the internet and the onset of online ad sales. Social VR is currently in this liminal moment, teetering between early ideals and monetization. (In November 2020, for example, VRChat announced a tiered paid version called VRChat Plus). Today, VRChat is refreshing in a world where it is no longer novel to meet a stranger on the internet, not to mention in a world that expects us to have a single integrated profile across all of our online spaces. History has shown us that social VR, like prior technology, is unlikely to generate massive profits without shutting people out and dampening creative and personal expression.
Ebb and Flow
All technology breaks down over time, ironically allowing decay and obsolescence to become a starting point for critical inquiry. The field of media archeology looks at technology’s life cycles by, in anthropologist Shannon Mattern’s phrasing, “challenging the newness of the ‘new.’” VR is marketed as a cutting-edge technology of the future, but the reason—according to media historian Sean Cubitt—that the digital realm can be considered avant-garde at all is because it contains both perpetual innovation and perpetual destruction. If media never dies, what happens to immersive virtual spaces like VRChat? Under neoliberalism, we may imagine the death of a new technology to be loud and spectacular, but it’s often slower and more circuitous, as theorized by scholars Garnet Hertz and Jussi Parikka. This digital rotting is actually what enables new life forms: VRChat exists between and because of the ebb and flow of creation and innovation, two opposing forces taking it apart and building it anew at the same time.
VRChat has many predecessors (Maze War, Activeworlds, The Palace, World of Warcraft, The Sims Online, RuneScape, Roblox, and Minecraft, to name a few). Unlike these forebears, however, VRChat, has no central or standard time. The complication of time is compounded by VRChat’s instancing system that allows for multiple copies of worlds to run at the same time. Inside the platform, VRChat casually rejects object permanence; outside, however, it cannot escape time. VRChat, like all technology, is plagued by planned obsolescence, characterized by hardware that becomes outdated, by file types that become incompatible, or, counterintuitively, by software version updates. According to longtime VRChat user Squid, large backend system updates have led to some users’ content being lost, forcing users to reupload worlds if they want to preserve them. But there are also smaller updates that make models glitch, and compel creators to go back and make small tweaks. When VRChat updates, “it’s a mild panic for everybody,” explained creator MechatronicDragon. “If you can plan [for] a big update ahead of time, it helps.”
All technologies have varying capacities for customization and maintenance (think of a copy machine versus a bike). As we’ve seen, VRChat is built to allow—and in fact fosters—user maintenance and care. Most popular contemporary platforms don’t have this affordance. The unrelenting pace of Mark Zuckerberg’s “move fast and break things” mentality is at odds with the ethos of the VRChat ecosystem. From the bottom up, the DIY community cares for the environment, doing unpaid labor to maintain it. Top-down updates, such as performance improvements and new SDK capabilities, ostensibly counter entropy and decay, but often do just the opposite, as previously noted. In this DIY setting, repair becomes social. The VRChat public spills out of the virtual world into other digital publics such as Discord, Reddit, YouTube, and Twitch, with skill-sharing on topics ranging from advanced visual graphics known as “shaders” and avatar building, to lighting methods and 3D-modeling services.
Obsolescence takes over when no one uploads new worlds, Discord servers go silent, creators stop fixing, and new content slows down. VRChat is in fact strewn with forgotten and broken worlds. Perhaps, then, death for VRChat—like other user-generated digital social spaces before it—will take the form of abandonment. When this atrophy takes hold, what will happen to the communities and identities VRChat has fostered? Likely they will be composted into the next platform, their presence faintly etched into the next innovation.
VRChat reminds me of many stories I’ve heard about the early internet. There is a particularly salient anecdote that writer Clay Shirky tells about one of the first web browsers called Mosaic. When it launched in 1993, Mosaic’s creators didn’t disable the developer debug tools. This allowed anyone to see the source code, learn from it, and apply it to their own websites. Thanks to this initial decision, debug tools became the norm for web browsers. Clay speculates that if it weren’t for this accidental default, the internet would have been more closed off to creators.
This anecdote reminds me that seemingly small decisions become defaults that determine our technological future. We’ve explored here some of the effects of VRChat eschewing company-created content, rejecting a standard avatar, a unified world, a formal economy, or a central time. Instead, there are multiple copies of worlds, and the company provides only basic infrastructure and community regulation. As we 3D model new environments and bodies for ourselves, we are—intentionally or not—defining and shaping future publics and identities within these spaces. VRChat contains clear imprints of the prebrowser internet, of early cyberspace, and of now-defunct virtual worlds. The palimpsest helps us peel back these intermingled layers, because it encourages us at the onset of any technology to think about its obsolescence.
What happens in virtual worlds has real consequences—hands touch, people connect, and emotions pour. In 2021, as we move more of our lives into cyberspace, examining the lifecycles of these mediated spaces will shape the direction of our path forward. “As long as we are lulled into believing that world-making within digital geographies and practice cannot be a breeding ground for new constructions of identity, politics, sociality, and potentiality,” writes curator Legacy Russell, “we limit ourselves to mimicking and replicating the same structures that have wounded us throughout history.” What VRChat has taught me is that with every remixed 3D model, every upload, and every embodied encounter, we have the opportunity—or perhaps the responsibility—to dig into technology and excavate its layers.
If the Internet Is Flat
by Marielle Ingram
If the Internet Is Flat
by Marielle Ingram
If the internet is flat, then we could fall right off the edge and into the abyss, into the unknown. Like quests to find the edge of the earth, we could explore the internet to its very end: to find where the earth meets the sky, to touch the place where the sun sets.
After all, one of the earliest computer programs, from one of the earliest, most seminal computer programming books, The C Programming Language (1978), is the simple, three-line program:
Hello, World! is still used today, both in teaching novice coding and in conducting high-level computer “sanity” tests, which confirm that a computer’s code is working. We have to wonder if in 1519, when he embarked on his circumnavigation of the globe, Ferdinand Magellan said hello to the world, too.
Magellan’s ships, of course, found that if you set out to cross the globe, instead of finding an unending journey or a vertical drop into the unknown, you would simply return home if you only just ... kept ... on ... going. But circumnavigation and the spherical shape of the earth are only made possible by the planet’s center of gravity, so strong because of its immense mass. It pulls everything inward and, in turn, holds everything in balance, holds everything just so.
For flat-earthers, however, the shape of the earth can be derived from observation; for them, it is the simple fact that the world looks flat, the bottoms of clouds are flat, the movement of the Sun; these are all examples of your senses telling you that we do not live on a spherical heliocentric world. This is using what’s called an empirical approach, or an approach that relies on information from your senses.
The internet is different; our experience of it is processual. Its shape appears not by observation but by unfolding, revealing its depths only as we move through it. You can travel the web to its most-hidden beaches and secret coves, where forgotten images, avatars, usernames, and chatrooms wash up on the sand. But as you journey on, you navigate sections of the internet where the early infrastructure reveals itself like the ancient city of Pompeii—rid of all human life due to a volcanic eruption, yet perfectly preserved in the ashes of the very disaster that threatened its existence. You don’t simply return home and find yourself in the very same place where you started, nor do you suddenly hit a wall. Rather than appearing flat, the internet is flat, because of a lack of gravitational force pulling everything together. Some flat-earthers claim that a gigantic ice wall surrounds our planet, like the invisible wall warning to “Return to the Battlefield” in Halo. If the internet is flat, then it is unbounded, like falling off of the Rainbow Road in Mario Kart.
Indeed, flatness means that there is no end to the internet. Flatness stands in for unending space. For while you might fall off of the internet’s flat plane, the abyss is not empty, nor does its vastness entail an end; like the sea, the internet’s abyss is full of potentiality. The web, the internet, and digitality itself are part process, part thing. On the one hand, our experience of the internet is an event: every time the webpage loads, a series of steps (read: codes) occur in order to bring forth the page. The appearance of the page is always a possibility, waiting for the right keystroke. On the other hand, there is at any given time a finite amount of internet, and yet by the time you read this sentence, there will be more. So long as the program is operating, content and information are being added. Falling off of the edge only means entering into unknown, undeveloped territory.
As Alexander Galloway so aptly describes, the structure of the internet is much like a phone call.
“Hello,” “Hi, this is ...” “Well, I’ll talk to you later.”
It seems “dial-up” meant something after all. The traditional image of the web is largely incorrect—it is not a storage facility full of file cabinets, an archive where information rests until called upon, like SpongeBob’s brain. Rather, the internet, as Galloway describes, is defined by protocol, the basic, general definition being “any type of correct or proper behavior within a specific system of conventions.” Today, protocol more commonly refers “to standards governing the implementation of specific technologies” and, perhaps like the shift from flat-earth models to spherical models, protocol “was once a question of consideration and sense,” but it is now “a question of logic and physics.” “Hello ... Hi, this is ...” is to the telephone as “Hello, World!” is to the web: each technology functions with a protocol that then allows free flow to occur between these defined gestures.
It is the agreed-upon behavior that we enact as we pick up the phone that allows the conversation to proceed normally. The stuff in between, in the middle of the conversation, is infinitely reconfigurable. This is flatness, the oscillation between the space of potential that exists outside the current here and now and the endlessly expanding here and now. Because code is but a language, a system of signs and meanings to be constructed by the speaker (or by the user, by the programmer ...), the internet exists as the possibility of operation and the operation itself.
The artist Sarah Sze says that her own work teeters, and so does the internet. Sze’s works are both monumental and sublime: they teeter between tiny and vast, “from little webs of line here, to the great circuit of an orrery there, and back again.” I imagine the internet, a system of a million-and-one things producing a world, to be like Sze’s Triple Point. While the earth is drawn together by its enormity that produces a gravitational force, the internet, like Sze’s objects, teeters between balance and falling, between being and becoming.
If the internet is flat, then it unfolds at every step and disappears behind itself at every turn; it’s constantly changing—falling apart and putting itself back together again like the sand on the shore rearranged by every crashing wave. The internet is omnidirectional in this way, sprawling out as William Gibson predicted so long ago, like “lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.” The internet is constantly on the verge—“you don’t know whether it’s still in the process of being made or in the process of falling apart.”
In Sze’s worlds, systems are constructed out of an amalgamation of tiny things. We are “shuttled between the micro and the macro, the cellular and the stellar.” In Triple Point, for example, hundreds of objects from various stores and sites were gathered by Sze and brought together. Indeed, the internet is both a ginormous world of information and a tiny particle of data; the internet is the 2.5 quintillion bytes of information produced every day constructed by each single byte of data. The internet consists of more and more and more information, more like falling into a cybersea than cyberspace. We drown in the web, not due to a lack of oxygen as in outer space, but due to the overwhelming rush of water entering our lungs. Like Sze’s “impossible systems of information,” water floods every which way, and we tumble through, tossed by the waves. As we try to swim up and out, we’re not sure if we’re actually just going down and deeper.
In this way, the internet might be Junkspace, where all of this junk, all of this shit, all of the water filling our lungs in the deep web, continues endlessly. As theorist Neal E. Magee writes, in Junkspace,
all space is now up for grabs, waiting in line for its turn to be rearranged, reassembled, renovated, reconfigured, revised, redesigned, returned. All public space is now transitional and superficial, every territory—real or virtual—is now provisional. ... This place could really be any place.
The Junkspace of the internet is infinitely reconfigurable and endlessly reanimated by the logics of the computer. Every line of code is a movement, not a structure. The internet and Junkspace are both far from traditional architectural forms. The internet is not meant to stay or be restored. Instead, code is executed and the event occurs. If Junkspace is, at bottom, a mass of things without a designed purpose, the internet is the ultimate example of function over form.
For the internet, as Magee writes of Junkspace, “the task of architecture ... is no longer the design and production of grand, unique, and permanent structures with a meaning and a legacy.” Indeed, like Junkspace, the internet “has no interest in superstructure: it is comprised of transient, impermanent subsystems; interchangeable LEGOS.” The crucial difference is that while Magee explains that Junkspace is the result of the fact that “shopping is the organizing principle for social relations” in the “new millennium”, the internet as Junkspace is not about shopping in the sense that Koolhaas means it: the gathering and consumption of market goods. Rather, the organizing principle for social relations on the internet relies precisely on junk as an action, not an object or good, where spam stands in for junk as an operational tactic. Junk in Koolhaas’s Junkspace sits, gathering dust, waiting for purchase; spam on the internet does the opposite: its function is to move. Spam circulates via email, chat room, DM, what have you. On the internet, junk isn’t sold, bought, or consumed. Junk is spam: a medium, void of any content.
If you’ve made it this far, you probably didn’t read the word spam in your head for the approximately seven hundred times I copy and pasted it. You probably scrolled down, perhaps skipping the content embedded in the spam paragraphs, or maybe they caught your eye as variations within the spam pattern. Either way, the informational content didn’t matter. In fact, there might not have been any information given at all. Spam, as a word, loses meaning and becomes a mere obstacle in the paragraphs above. What you did notice was the form, and that you needed to navigate downward to get to any useful information, to find where words had meaning again. With spam, information is eradicated and content is undifferentiated and smooth. As Galloway writes, it is like virtualization, “a newfound flux of indistinction.” And yet, as with edible spam itself, internet spam is not just smooth. It rides the line, in perpetual motion between smoothness and striation.
Spam, as Steyerl describes, is an “uncanny mix between the natural and synthetic. It is both organic and deeply inauthentic, an industrial product with some remnants of nature in it.” It is an amalgamation of other things, an object created through difference that is pulverized into sameness. Spam is a smooth object, the ultimate analog movement from multiplicity to oneness, produced by difference. Made up of “bits and pieces” but itself homogenous, spam is made up of both everything and only one thing: spam. In this way, spam itself holds the tension between smoothness and striation.
For Deleuze and Guattari, smoothness is the patchwork that is amorphous, and “in principle infinite, open and unlimited in every direction.” Smoothness stands in for “haptic rather than optical perception” and for “intensities, wind and noise, forces, and sonorous and tactile qualities as in the desert, steppe, or ice.” The striated “intertwines fixed and variable elements, produces an order and succession.” It is heterogeneous and takes knitting as its fabric form. The internet is striated due to its variable elements—endless types of data, endless types of users—and smooth in its unlimited capacity for change enabled by its basis in code.
So too does spam occupy both of these realms: a continuity of variation spawned from variable elements. And from this sameness, doubled over, difference is produced to spawn sameness again, for when spam is mobilized as a block of text, as sameness—spam spam spam spam spam spam spam spam spam spam spam spam spam spam spam spam spam spam—it produces a striated topography of order and succession. Indeed, “smooth space is constantly being translated, transversed into a striated space; striated space is constantly being reversed, returned to a smooth space.” Deleuze and Guattari write, “It is as though a smooth space emanated, sprang from a striated space, but not without a correlation between the two, a recapitulation of one in the other, a furtherance of one through the other.”
The internet, then, seems even more like the sea. The sea is smooth and striated. It is “directional rather than dimensional or metric” and “exemplifies smoothness ... the sea is a smooth space fundamentally open to striation.” We might imagine that if we reach the edge of the internet and take one step too far, we fall into an ocean. Descending into the deep internet, we find ourselves surrounded by more and more information, so plentiful that our lungs cannot contain it and so heavy that our bodies might be crushed. The deeper you go, the more that strange creatures float about and the more that navigation becomes difficult. Our current ways of engaging on the internet hinder our ability to interact, like humans accustomed to breathing oxygen entering into the ocean, where water flows and pressure builds. From the disinterested shuffle-clicking of the mouse through mall-like websites, to the darkness of the underexplored and left-behind web, we move from Facebook and YouTube, to Myspace and LiveJournal, from open flows of communication—Share, Like, Add—to read-only.
As a technology created out of military research to support state power, the internet functions to reinforce hierarchy, both in its ideology and in its innerworkings. Yet it is also a nonhierarchical network that provides space for flows of information and communication between users. As a network to facilitate the flow of information, the internet creates space through movement and forms an architecture through impermanent and fleeting interactions.
Thus, the internet is not totally striated nor completely smooth. It is the folding and unfolding and folding again, from smoothness to striation, the teetering between the two that comprises flatness: a state made possible only by the absence of a center of gravity. The potential for becoming, as we fall into the unknown, is endless, and yet there is an impossible system of information from which this potential is produced and from which it escapes, always beyond its own horizon.
The fact that the internet is both smooth and striated is what differentiates internet Junkspace from Junkspace as architecture. While Koolhaas’s Junkspace is about consumption, where consumers take in objects and duality becomes singularity, the internet as a Junkspace denotes the friction produced by the ebb and flow from smoothness to striated space. Like Junkspace, the internet is infinitely reconfigurable, but this reconfigurability is less about consumption and more about the internet’s shifting contours and interactions with power. The internet’s power structure is protocological and distributed; it is a logic, a system where power is created by a structure rather than by a place or a source. This movement, made possible by the internet’s distributed structure, is its productivity and its digitality.
Digitality, the movement from oneness to twoness, naturally exists as space itself. As Galloway writes, while “time allows for co-temporal events ... there can be no co-spatial objects, even as we may speak of a body passing through a cloud, or an alloy of two substances. None of these are instances of two discrete entities occupying the same space. ... Space is the place of splitting, differentiating, and holding at arm’s length. When the one divides into two, it always does so in terms of space.”
Digital Junkspace is not simply a reflection of the consumerist, capitalist “real” that Koolhaas imagines as Junkspace. Nor is it merely a reflection of the commodity. Instead, in the same way that Hal Foster describes Sze’s installations, digital Junkspace is productive, and it “models an alternative world” out of itself through endless possibilities for new formations. Rather than being consumptive as in Koolhaas’ Junkspace, digital Junkspace is productive: more shit will make more shit will make more shit will make more ...
This large amount of information slowed down the Mexican government’s web hosting server. (FloodNet was even used to disrupt the websites of the Pentagon and the Frankfurt Stock Exchange.) Not only did the spam sent out by users jam these state-sponsored and websites, but the spam became an actual space of creation. The messages sent by users found their way into the very infrastructure of the site that produces the space of the webpage.
By encouraging users’ ability to produce endless amounts of junk or spam, EDT relied on the internet’s flatness, the meeting of striated and smooth space, to mobilize junk. The distributed nature of users on the web—who exist in pockets without a particular nexus or center of gravity—created a striated space bent on jamming the smoothness of the Mexican government, where hierarchy and order rule. In this encounter between smoothness and striation, a digital medium became fertile ground for action. In this way, if digitality is the producer of junk on the web, flatness is the structural shape which allows for junk to persist.
"Man-Gaming": A History of Militarized Computer Graphics
by Thuto Durkac-Somo
"Man-Gaming": A History of Militarized Computer Graphics
by Thuto Durkac-Somo
In 1970 academic research labs across the United States connected via the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), a wired network now considered an early form of the internet. ARPANET allowed the sharing of data between computers that weren’t in the same location, aiding military and defense research at agencies like NASA’s Ames Research Center and BBN Technologies. The success of the network is in part measured by the 1973 competitive computer game Maze War, which ran eight-player games on Imlac PDS-1 displays connected over ARPANET. According to Greg Thompson, one of the game’s authors, Maze War was banned by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency because of the network traffic caused by games between Stanford and MIT.
Maze War was a first-person shooter game where players could operate avatars, displayed as disembodied eyes, to shoot at enemy players or to move forward, left, or right. Players could not freely look around at their avatars, but there weren’t any appendages to view either. Taking place in a grid world composed of ninety-degree angles, the game maintained perspective despite using only a minimal number of lines. Engineers involved with defense and technology had a stake in developing computer simulations with realistic perspective: NASA primarily used Imlac displays to visualize space shuttle data and robot movement on a simulation of Mars. In other words, US prerogatives in the Space Race helped to shape the conventions of all virtual spaces to come.
This early moment of graphic display and perspective in the 1970s reveals the construction of a technical physiognomy that continues to fascinate graphic designers. On university campuses and in military labs, defense researchers defined virtual bodies—like the disembodied eyes of Maze War—as objects to be controlled within strict limits, rather than as subjects free to wander as they chose. By the 1970s computer simulations expanded from military research to be used in consumer video games. But they never fully shook these early definitions of the ideal human form, enshrined in computer code and perspectival graphics. How users identify with their virtual body is clearly not just based on how that figure looks, but also on its point of view, on how it is able to move and act.
Universities, defense contractors, and military agencies created virtual bodies and spatial simulations, from the Cold War through the “War on Terror,” as test subjects and power fantasies. Beginning with a discussion of virtual perspective, this investigation traces a historical lineage from the work of sociologist Omar Khayyam Moore and the City-Scape project of architect Peter Kamnitzer to the US military’s use of SIMNET and the military fantasy of video games like Metal Gear Solid 2. In each case virtual bodies have radical potential, yet their top-down construction often prevents these avatars from reaching beyond their militarized origins.
At the outset of graphic display technology, roughly a decade before Maze War, data-driven environments set the terms for virtual play. For example, in the 1962 game Spacewar!, two players’ spaceships begin kitty-corner from one another onscreen. A flickering star in the center of the screen pulls each ship into its perilous gravity. The goal is to shoot the other ship while keeping a safe distance from the central star. The game was first developed by Steve Russell and later by Peter Samson, Dan Edwards, and Martin Graetz at MIT. “The simulation of gravity made it a truly active presence,” writes media theorist Lev Manovich. “Just as the player had to engage with the spaceships, he also had to engage with space itself.” Manovich draws attention to the way games create an illusion of depth. Building on a term developed by art historian Alois Riegl, Manovich describes most computer-generated worlds as “haptic,” meaning that polygonal modeling produces an aggregate of discrete objects:
A designer launching a modeling program is typically presented with an empty space defined by a perspectival grid; the space will be gradually filled by the objects created. If the built-in message of a music synthesizer is a sine wave, the built-in world of computer graphics is ... the coordinate system itself.
The influence of games like Maze War and Spacewar! on later generations of computer games is partly mechanical; moving within a closed space and shooting enemies have become familiar aspects of many contemporary video games. But the technical design of Maze War and Spacewar! was inextricably tied to their Cold War political context. Initially played by a small audience of academics and government engineers, these games prioritized the system over the user, rendering the latter into an object in a mathematical system.
Starting in the 1960s, researchers began conducting experiments to explore the psychology of the computer user. These experiments were not only done for the military and aeronautics industries but also for education reform. While directing a group psychology lab at the Office of Naval Research, sociologist Omar Khayyam Moore worked with Alan Ross Anderson on “autotelic folk-models.” From a certain sociological perspective, the term refers to artistic and playful activities produced within communities that contain their own sources of motivation. Noting the importance of autotelic culture, the researchers suggested that “it would seem reasonable to try to fabricate autotelic teaching devices” in the form of computerized teaching aids.
Moore’s research into autotelic heuristics extended to a field experiment called Project Breakthrough, funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1969. Project Breakthrough began with young children entering a room alone to type on a “Talking Typewriter,” which played a phonetic sound each time a key was pressed. The experiment used the personal computer as a way of isolating the user in an educational environment, removed from the communities of home or school. Scholar William Lockett argues that within this pedagogy of computation, “social scientists planned the redesign and reindividuation of computing into its personalized form.” Moore saw a successful user as one who excelled at the standardized problem-solving made possible by machines. This is a thorny proposition, considering that Moore was diagnosing the educational achievements of low-income children of Cook County, Illinois. The translation of technology from defense intelligence to education turned out to be a rather straight path. In both cases, success was producing a user who succumbed to the methods of a graphic display.
Computers were viewed as tools for exerting power over not only a user’s body, but also their city. The September 1969 issue of Architectural Design featured urban simulation projects by architect Peter Kamnitzer, including one called City-Scape that was commissioned by NASA’s moon landing department. The game was intended as a testing ground for designers to simultaneously create and move through their cities. A speculative screenshot of City-Scape shows the user’s view framed by the interior of a contemporary car. A road sign indicates an upcoming intersection, and other cars can be seen on the road. While initially displayed in 2D on a cathode-ray tube monitor, Kamnitzer planned to expand the simulation onto a 360-degree field of view. He called it “man-gaming,” a simulation mapping sensory information about cities of the present and future.
Man-gaming became one component of simulations aimed at solving, as Kamnitzer phrased it, “urban ills.” Noting that cities are too sprawling and heterogenous for “total optimization,” he wrote that the “man-machine mode” of City-Scape was the next best thing, as it allowed for “man’s value judgements to become part of the problem solving process itself.” Ultimately, Kamnitzer’s code for City-Scape was used by NASA’s Johnson Space Center in their training facilities. His work demonstrates a particular power fantasy over cities and their inhabitants. The City-Scape world appears absent of racial or economic factors. Kamnitzer had a second project, INTU-VAL, which made use of a light pen to draw freeways and city streets onto the display. INTU-VAL would report back to the designer about the consequences of their design on conservation, congestion, safety, community service, and cost. The designer’s intuition would become more and more refined as the computer optimized their urban planning decisions; the segregation of society could be rendered back to the designer as an optimal route of machine instruction.
Fantasies of civil control were also baked into the state–university partnerships that developed early virtual imaging. In 1965 professor Ivan Sutherland described an “ultimate” virtual environment as
a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the wonderland into which Alice walked.
I do not think it a coincidence that the fantasy Sutherland describes is one of corporal punishment and restriction, nor that the computer user in this scenario is never directly mentioned. The “wonderland” of the computer’s display would be a kinesthetic device capable of controlling or violently harming the anonymous user.
Sutherland, alongside Robert Taylor and David C. Evans, went on to run the University of Utah’s Information Processing and Techniques Office (IPTO), which developed research on virtual avatars throughout the 1960s and ’70s. IPTO went from a budget of $9 million in 1962 to $20 million in 1970, largely thanks to funding from the Department of Defense and ARPA. Their work produced a larger consumer market for simulation outside of state-sponsored research departments. Evans’s 1971 report Graphical Man/Machine Communications is a touchstone in animating and manipulating human avatars. In the study, a human hand and face are objects that users can manipulate. Based on this research at IPTO, the team established the Evans & Sutherland Computer Corporation in 1968. They eventually developed graphic systems for the navy, the air force, and commercial airlines.
Roughly a decade later, the 3D avatar model known as “Jack” was developed by NASA and the Department of Computer and Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania for use by NASA and various branches of the US military. Jack was modelled after the average fit male NASA crew member, based on “standard people” (i.e., male engineers, soldiers, and astronauts). Jack’s body and physique manifest the ideal computer user, according to a technocratic problem-solving logic. Given a “generic face” and a hat to avoid modeling hair, Jack looked blocky and rudimentary, but the model still allowed for custom clothing, facial features, and skin surfaces. Jack wore dark pants, a t-shirt, and sunglasses, allowing a user to quickly recognize the direction it was facing. Posing in a supposedly “neutral” way, Jack’s appearance was that of a soldier.
At around the same time, the US Army began using a virtual war simulation to train soldiers. Known as Simulator Networking (SIMNET), the project was proposed in 1978 by Jack A. Thorpe in the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and was first run in 1984. To use SIMNET soldiers sat in a dome lined with monitors, each simulating the experience of operating F-14s, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and aircraft carriers in combat. Multiple SIMNET stations could be synced up, ostensibly producing a team-based multiplayer game. Demonstrations of the technology became popular attractions, according to Duncan Miller. Miller managed the program from 1983 to 1993, overlapping with the Persian Gulf War. As the army developed new virtual programs in the 1990s, some of SIMNET’s innovations in multiplayer technology found a new home at Sony Computer Entertainment. RTIME Inc., a company started by former SIMNET engineer Rolland Waters, was bought by Sony in 2000. The much-discussed concept that video games make the user violent is backwards in a history where violence set the precedent for games.
As the 1970s produced the first generation of home video-game consoles, the virtual graphics industry began to expand from the defense sphere into entertainment. Today criteria for avatar realism have fully crossed over from military research to consumer gaming. But the basic principles are the same; casual players now interface with military avatars like Jack as an extension of their own bodies. The gameplay feedback loop, as articulated by game theorist Julian Kücklich, is activated by the user’s subjectivity, concluding with a player’s dependence on “the algorithm to validate her input, so that nontrivial effort needs to be expended to maintain the cybernetic loop.” Games produce a transposition of identity that is less grounded in Kamnitzer’s design heuristics and more about performing a role to the best of your avatar’s ability.
Evincing the military-entertainment complex are two video games released in the months after 9/11—Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and America’s Army. Metal Gear Solid 2 is a PlayStation 2 game in which the player controls Raiden (coincidentally, also known as Jack), a soldier trained in virtual reality before going on military campaigns. The player’s own point of view shapes the game’s plot—choosing to skip a cutscene or look away from something changes the narrative. Tutorializing is itself part of the game, as mechanical functions like saving, shooting, and breathing are embedded in the fiction of character dialogue. Video game writer Heather Alexandra notes that in the game, “the world exists relative to the player’s perception.” Raiden’s psyche is chipped away as he realizes that his reality is gradually shifting to match that of the player, who acts as both the trained soldier and the one running the simulation.
America’s Army, by contrast, was a free-to-download game created by the US Army as a recruitment tool. Released on July 4, 2002, its motive was to enlist soldiers rather than merely to entertain. Here the distinction between simulation user and soldier dissolves almost entirely, as the player is encouraged to join the army after playing the game. The project’s design drew from realistic shooting positions, weapons, and Army values. Unsurprisingly, America’s Army replicates a distinctly US military point of view—for example, as a 2002 New York Times article noted, enemy combatants in the game are “designed to look as generic as possible.” A stated goal of the project was to expose potential recruits to the real experience of joining the military, in an attempt to minimize dropouts during basic training.
How users identify with their avatar goes beyond just war games to something more fundamental: the user’s overall physical abilities. In a game context, point of view is directly tied to the user experience. As critic Katherine N. Hayles summarizes, “In cyberspace, point of view does not emanate from the character; rather the pov literally is the character. If a pov is annihilated, the character disappears with it, ceasing to exist as a consciousness in and out of cyberspace.” Artist Simone C. Niquille’s work has also demonstrated the various ways the human body is idealized and controlled through computer design. In email correspondence, she notes, “I do not see the digital human body as a playable character but as one that can be controlled. Play is one application of control.” In her 2018 installation Safety Measures, Niquille developed algorithmic dummies as bloated toys, their joints and sex characteristics smoothed over. These abject “Others” were laid out on a perspectival grid, much like the one that formed the basis of early games like Maze War. “Measuring produces the conception of being in Control,” Niquille writes, “of understanding through analysis, reduction and sortation. In turn, the unknown Other becomes excluded and as such rendered non-existent.” Measuring according to able, healthy, algorithmic bodies erases a broader question of who uses virtual spaces and how.
Writing on virtual architecture databases, architect Galo Canizares points out that a user’s identity is not just formed by their avatar but by the literal terms and conditions of their software use. “Before a program can be installed,” Canizares writes, “users are asked to virtually agree to comply with the developer’s legal claims, distancing the user even farther from a point of agency with the label end-user.” We, as users, “consent” to what we have no choice but to consent to, making computers a wonderland with our own (in)action. 3D-model libraries like TurboSquid and Adobe’s Mixamo simultaneously offer royalty-free models while putting users through the familiar hoops of license agreements. The often-overlooked rules of software and thus virtual humans have become habitual, making the majority of virtual interactions a minefield of disciplinary heuristics. Agreeing to play is easy, but disengaging from control is hard.
While video-game mods have long allowed for players to adjust character appearance and behavior in games, the industry has more recently capitalized on the desire among consumers to exhibit some choice over their virtual selves. And the emergence of streaming sites that allow people to watch others play games has layered the identities of strangers onto modes of play. The appearance of avatars and game-playing bodies are increasingly visible, sponsored, traded, and commodified. I recall my amazement in 2008 when a friend showed me how to map my face onto the counterterrorist agents in the game Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Vegas 2. At best this type of intervention made me more aware of what aspects of my identity I imparted onto the screen. I could easily buy a skin texture on TurboSquid that approximates my own complexion, but what would this reproduction yield? An indefinite doubling of each user’s reality? A true, complete graphic reflection would figuratively—and likely literally—crash cyberspace. Like a warped reflection in a convex mirror, subjectivity is materialized by technology.
Yrkkey's Paradise was designed to explore a personal relationship with cyberspace. You (a human player) sit at your computer to embody a raccoon, who in turn sits at their computer to embody themselves as yet another character, in a yet-deeper level of simulation.
Many of the largest videogames and other popular digital spaces are designed to give us a sense of place and value, and in their shadow I often find myself considering questions about agency and reality. Which of my feelings and impulses can, or should, I consider real? Are engineered emotions any less legitimate? The characters of Yrkkey's Paradise make simple statements, contradictory claims that mirror my own contradictory thoughts. These two spaces surely have their differences, but how should I feel about them?
I (droqen) designed this game with the editorial assistance of Paolo Yumol and we hope the themes presented by Yrkkey's Paradise will provoke you to think about your relationship to these intertwined realities we inhabit.
Deepfake Forests1Squint and look closer. Sunlight cuts through a grove of trees—as they sway, their shadows dance against a patinated stone facade. A maple lights up with fall color; a dogwood is in spring blossom. Listen closely, and you might hear a bird sing.▲
by Colleen Tuite and John O’Keefe
The shadow of a quadcopter slithers across South American grasslands. In plan view, stampeding dappled horses weave, braid tightly, unravel, and weave together again. Slowly panning up, tangled deep green jungle blooms from soft focus in the foothills of snow-capped mountains beyond. Pan flutes crescendo, propped up by a lush, choral synthesizer track and an infectious, Eurodance-inspired drumbeat. Corporate logos enter the frame, spinning and swarming, then separating and dropping down onto the landscape á la televised European soccer. First in Portuguese, then Spanish, Russian, Chinese, a woman’s voice concisely describes a multi-national environmental protection project using the metric of hectares rehabilitated. A heaving collar of emissive mist at the base of the mountain exhales, revealing a thundering seafoam green waterfall exploding with dizzying prismatic effects and flocks of DayGlo birds. In English, she says lovingly, “only by working together can we heal our planet.”
A few years earlier, in a post-Soviet satellite state, where computer graphics and game engines loom large in popular and commercial culture, tattered plastic sheeting billows from stalled construction projects like sails on a ghost ship.2Increasingly, someone outside the Western marketplace can now enter through the digital sphere. Like manufacturing, customer service, and content moderation, tasks that have been outsourced to the labor markets of the Global South, so too has the production of 3D models and renderings. While China and India have led the outsourcing market, the former Soviet and Balkan blocs have kept apace. Digital fantasy worlds provide both phantom glossy capitalist “antidotes” to the socialized past and a means for those previously denied access to participate in commodity fetishism. Outsourcing is accomplished both by contracting with local companies and by commissioning individuals who make their work available for purchase in online marketplaces. The cost-efficient construction of simulated worlds requires a new, distributed network of precarious workers.
Despite the old Eastern Bloc’s lethargic, proto-capitalist economy, the buildings’ flowing, curvilinear forms still hint at those dotting the skylines of fantasy summer blockbusters and the real-life capital cities of oil-rich nations.
In the outskirts of the city, on the fourth floor of a dilapidated khrushchyovka overlooking a treeless playground, Aaliyah sits at her computer 3D modeling the leaves of Monstera deliciosa plants. She draws inspiration from the playfulness and geometric simplicity of Matisse collages she sees hanging on the walls of high-ceilinged lofts on Pinterest. She creates her own brightly slashed and variegated patterns instead of using higher-res google images as texture maps.
Aaliyah’s older brother Ayrat had been a wunderkind supercar modeler, and had set her up with a hand-me-down PC as daycare after their mother left and Aaliyah’s heightened sensitivity to environmental stimulus made the chaos of elementary school an impossibility. Wire transfers from their father working construction abroad became more infrequent and eventually stopped, but by that time Ayrat had learned that he and Aaliyah could only depend on themselves. His close-cropped hair revealed the healed slices and abrasions indicative of an unsupervised childhood playing pickup sports in abandoned lots. They prepared meals and warmed wash water on a portable electric range that sat on top of their broken oven. Though Aaliyah rarely left their apartment, she dressed meticulously, always color-coordinating her tracksuit with headscarfs and her mother’s dangly gold earrings.
Initially, Aaliyah’s models were composed of free junk from SketchUp’s 3D Warehouse, rendered using basic VISOPT files that Ayrat had given her. The pace and detail of the work suited her temperament. As Aaliyah’s skills improved, Ayrat began helping her sell her plants on TurboSquid, an online marketplace for digital objects used to populate architectural visualizations and video games. Her plants were low poly, but elegantly assembled and textured, and by selectively making unique components and editing them, she could quickly make one plant become many distinct plants without bogging down the models that they were used in. In the days before architectural entourage was packaged inside rendering software, Aayliah’s clients were primarily architects working for developers marketing boutique apartment towers in the US and the EU, and a few well-placed designer ferns and tropicals in terracotta pots went a long way toward creating an aspirational sales package.3In the last twenty years, the real estate developer has used the photorealistic architectural rendering to access credit and capital, promoting neoliberalism. It frequently presents a warped, mood-stabilized version of reality—happy consumers in happy architecture; yet, the nature in the background of the rendering—fat, frozen looking trees, rows of identical bushes, or too-uniform grass—serve as a grounding confession. The sleek, flat surfaces of the building look sexy, but the landscape is cheap and artificial, a trashy sim city. Most designers resort to Photoshop to add landscape to architectural renderings, as the awkward trees would kill the seduction on contact. But, in an industry where design changes are frequently mandated overnight, the static nature of Photoshop is a workflow hindrance.
Despite the old Eastern Bloc’s lethargic, proto-capitalist economy, the buildings’ flowing, curvilinear forms still hint at those dotting the skylines of fantasy summer blockbusters and the real-life capital cities of oil-rich nations.
The siblings worked side by side like this for a couple of years, their faces bathed in the blue light from their machines building libraries of cars and plants. Ayrat would chain-smoke little cigars and listen to Tatar hip-hop or The Chemical Brothers at low volume—their mouse-clicks part of the soundtrack. He would break periodically and try to make her smile or teach her new tools—eventually showing her 3ds Max and more about V-Ray. Ayrat’s models of super cars were selling for several hundred dollars apiece, but after a lucrative burst of activity in the online marketplaces, his models would eventually pop up somewhere for free, and he would have to start again. This cycle of diminishing returns, spending hours at a time on a single car, frustrated Ayrat—that and the endless tinkering with PC towers to make room for more graphics cards and hard drives until the CPU and power supply were at their limits.4
A new generation of rendering software is afoot, powered by a graphics processing unit (GPU) instead of the computer’s central processing unit (CPU). If CPU is the reliable yet plodding boomer, thoughtfully completing each task before moving on to the next, GPU is the Adderall-snorting zoomer, tapping and clicking at lightspeed while slightly braindead, with a screen of full of DMs, Slack channels, and a cascade of windows (each with a different project). GPU excels at processing vast amounts of data simultaneously and requires little interaction from the user while it works—essentially, the work that happens after you hit render and go get a coffee or take a nap at your desk. Render speeds, accuracy, and quality (“reality”) with GPU far exceed CPU, eliminate hours long waits, and, even more importantly, provide real-time renderings that can be edited on the fly. GPU allows one computer to output what would have taken a render farm (multiple computers networked together) in the past. The shift is most clearly seen in the rendering of vast, complex landscapes.
Ayrat resented those with an advantage over him—creators with more computing power but less technical skills. On the plus side, he received a commission from the car manufacturer Koenigsegg, identified only by the screenname gearhead, which had paid him five times what he’d been getting for a typical supercar build. However, when a computer he had just finished building crashed under the polygon count of a 1600 Hp 5.0 L supercar custom-ordered by Koenigsegg, he threw a beer bottle across the room, barely missing Aaliyah’s computer and badly frightening her.
Sensing a shift in the marketplace, Ayrat enrolled in a MOOC coding class, setting his sights on one day working for a glitzy ad agency-turned CG industry powerhouse.5
In 1997 the Bulgarian software company Chaos Group released V-Ray, a ray-tracing and global-illumination software that calculates and simplifies realistic lighting and shading scenarios inside 3D models. V-Ray has bridged the transition from a CPU- to a GPU-driven rendering, and it is now widely used in the architecture and film industries to add realistic atmospheric and material textures to architectural renderings and Hollywood blockbusters.
He began putting together machine learning GUI definitions using Grasshopper and Python that could generate and cycle through rows upon rows of iterative supercars at one time—rendering in real time now—like a time-lapsed taxonomic pinboard of shape-shifting iridescent beetles. The graphics cards that in the beginning merely coordinated object textures, and calculated lighting, shadows, reflections in their renderings, were now making design decisions. He had been spending less time with Aaliyah but proudly shared the work with her one night—she saw its potential immediately and asked if he could show her how to do this for her plants. He promised.6
The company dominating the GPU market is Nvidia, founded in 1993 to make video cards for gaming consoles, most notably for Sega’s hardware. After a conflict with Sega over the release of its first-generation chip, Nvidia switched its focus to PC gaming. In 1999 with the release of its GeForce 256 chipset, the company began to rebrand its video cards as GPU. Nvidia’s illustrated history is a montage of the familiar—race cars, sim cities, first-person shooters—screengrabs of the masculine will to power and of the modern era’s death drive.
That summer, Ayrat began spending more and more time at a MOOC classmate’s apartment where a few of them had pooled resources and were building a server that could handle the computing power needed for their machine learning scripts.7
Around 2009 a shift occurred as computer scientists in academia and at Google began to work more closely with AI deep-learning processes. Previously this work had required a vast amount of computing power, but researchers found that they could use GPU processors to drive neural-network learning. Nvidia’s GeForce cards, previously used to render digital explosions and massacres, became the brain for something completely new. Over the last ten years, Nvidia has included AI within its product scope, optimizing its cards for deep-learning research. Increasingly, it seems that this will be the primary direction of the company.
Aaliyah could take care of herself now and understood that Ayrat couldn’t stay in the apartment forever, but she missed her brother. She emptied his ashtrays, opened the windows, and beat the dirt and dust out of kilim rugs—the cigar smell lifted a bit, and the workspace was brighter. She thought more about the machine learning scripts—they could be like seeds for her plants once she set them in motion. She wondered if her plants could live and grow on their own if their environments were set up in a way that could sustain them.8
In 2010 the first version of the rendering software Lumion—boasting a built-in library of procedural trees and shrubs, people, vehicles, and furniture—entered the market. Specs for computers running Lumion matched those typically associated with gaming PCs—including their powerful GPUs. Also borrowed from the gaming world was the use of the wasd and arrow keys for navigation. In 2019, further bridging the rendering and gaming divide, the developer Epic Games (of Fortnite fame) acquired Twinmotion, an architectural visualization program to complement its Unreal Engine gaming software. Twinmotion outputs crystal-clear, highly specific AI-driven environments. Twinmotion, which is marketed to architects, advertises cinematic quality renderings with little expertise needed from the end user. There is less room and little time for personal style, however, as both programs churn out photorealism, one real estate image after the next. But where the advancement of the software shines is in its reproduction of nature. Using AI, the software generates hyperrealistic materials, lighting, and weather effects such as snow, rain, fog, clouds and dazzling sunsets. In these renderings, plants appear distinctly individual, alive, and perfect, swaying in the breeze of their environments. The shock of achievable reality grows with each version update.
Ayrat came home one night with one of his eyes swollen shut, dimly shining magenta. He plugged a USB drive into her computer and hurriedly demonstrated how she could start parameterizing her plant models. “Work on this for a bit, show me what you can do, then I’ll show you next steps.” He went into the stairwell for a muffled but heated phone call and was still on the phone when Aaliyah fell asleep. The next morning Ayrat woke Aaliyah up early and nervously explained that he needed to relocate to be on site for a project. He reassured her that it wouldn’t be for too long, and he handed her an envelope stuffed with cash for groceries and supplies, as well as his PayPal account info, should she need computer parts, plug-ins or add-ons. After a few cursory exchanges, Aaliyah’s texts would go unanswered for weeks, then months, until communication dropped altogether.
Aaliyah distracted herself from her brother’s absence with digital gardening as fat pads of snow thumped against her window like little parachuters blown off course. Periodically she scrolled through the message boards, hoping that Ayrat’s username might pop up. She began to read about how other modelers were moving from Turbosquid to marketplaces hosted by game engines like Unreal and Unity.9
Digital object commerce platforms like SketchUp’s 3D Warehouse, TurboSquid, and Unreal Engine’s Marketplace explode the aspirational elements of video games and architectural renderings alike—Eames chairs and Edison bulbs; cyberpunk accessories and items, troll armies and heavy artillery. These elements are commingled amongst a wild assortment of landscapes and plants—dewy ferns, dynamic fields of wildflowers, procedural mountains, and scripted weather patterns.
At first, she studied Ayrat’s automated automotive scripts, locating and deciphering lines of code that she could tailor to her plant geometry assemblies, but soon she was creating her own. The machine-learning scripts became seeds for her plants—once she defined the parameters and set them in motion, her garden compositions grew and grew, taking on lives of their own. She became a well-regarded contributor to modeling, rendering, and AI message boards, and her environment builds had been studied by thousands of users.10
This pack contains: 2 Demo scenes, 3 Red deer (rigged, procedural antlers), 8 Songbirds, 7 Birch trees, 29 Grasses, 6 Flowers, 10 Ferns, 14 Ground covers, 8 Bushes, 27 Big rocks, 12 Small rocks, 5 Mossy forest rocks, 7 Birch branches, 10 Wood logs, 1 Emissive mist collar, Full dynamic lighting setup (LPV) & Auto-painted landscape material setup.
Later, in the spring, Aaliyah received an unusual message. Usually, customers asked for slight variations to one of her models, or an alternative file format. This one was different. The messenger, gearhead, wanted to commission Aaliyah to build detailed models of plants she’d never attempted, with names she had never heard of. She Googled each plant species on the list, clicking through images of each type—palms, vines, ferns, fungi, and canopy trees found in the Brazilian rainforest. The message emphasized that total accuracy was required, and that Aaliyah would forfeit all rights to her models. If she accepted, she would be handsomely compensated. She was directed to log in to an encrypted messaging service for further communication. She replied that she would gladly accept the offer, digitally signed the exhaustive documentation and hit send.
For the next several months Aaliyah worked tirelessly, generating scripts that generated virtual biomes of tropicals, palms, and vines in various states of growth and decomposition, and associated fungi and leaf litter. Aaliyah had been tasked with creating a rainforest at all stages of growth, and these new scripts had become intricate overlays of Google image queries, and local plant health and climate research databases that introduced environmental feedback to her initial, more internal habit-driven parameters. Having received surprisingly few check-ins over the monthslong period, the work was finally complete, and she pushed the last batch of files to the assigned code hosting repository. The agreed upon crypto payment hit her account the next day, and soon she received more assignments from gearhead and was making far more money ́than Ayrat ever did with his cars. She used the money to pay for modest renovations to their apartment, installing a new oven and microwave and replacing the linoleum. She upgraded her machine with new graphics cards as soon as they were released, paying heavily for shipping and import duties from the US.
Almost a year after losing contact, Aaliyah received a message from Ayrat. He had been radicalized by an affinity group of leftist DIY programmers, scientists, and biohackers who had smuggled him to their experimental farm outside of Graz. They were working on programming animal and plant evolutionary trajectory simulations by adjusting variables and pulling from GIS data to simulate shifts in climate and geologic events that could have gone one way or another, and the appearance of humans’ emergence and success—essentially, infinite combinations of real and imagined McHargian GIS overlay-produced mutations. He continued that he had broken his contract with a secretive AI agency. As bleeding edge (and lucrative) as the work had been initially, he couldn’t ultimately square his beliefs with the work he was doing being used for mass-scale deception.11
The deepfake video relies on algorithmic and AI-driven machine learning, studying its subject’s existing imagery. The existing imagery is reprocessed to create counterfeit images, which are simultaneously checked for how far they deviate from the original. Once the learning network can no longer detect that the new images are fraudulent, the deepfake has been achieved. Input volume is critical to the task; this is why deepfakes have focused on politicians (living and dead), celebrities, and pornography with an archive of public data to draw from. Public figures and environments are potential fodder for alternative worlds. In late 2018, following the online popularity of deepfakes, Nvidia released an open-source face generator that runs off GPU processing. Using an original datas ource such as Flickr, users can “train” the machine-learning model and produce customized new faces from a spectrum of features.
The last part made Aaliyah’s ears ring.
Unsettled and ready for a break from her screen, Aaliyah embarked on daily treks around the city softening her eyes to the muted, sedative color palette of the drab, crumbling cityscape. A few weeks later, she received another assignment from gearhead —this time, there was an inconspicuous mention of a Novel Environments Inc. in the contract documents. Curious, Aaliyah pasted it into the search bar and hit enter. The company, it seemed, was a multinational ecological restoration and reconstruction contractor. Their website showcased lush, full-screen images and video flyovers of their projects, restoring habitats and sensitive ecological environments around the world that had been damaged by toxic waste, chemical run off, and river siltation. But, as Aaliyah looked closer, she noticed that the trees—purportedly to have been planted in restoration projects in Brazil, Myanmar, DR Congo—were her trees.12
As the question of technical ability recedes, a new one emerges: What are the ethics of environmental simulation? And when virtual landscapes become just as convincing and immersive as deepfake photography or video, what value does the physical hold?
She recognized the lengths she had gone to generate imperfection by randomizing communities, the extents of fractal branching patterns, and leaf density maps. She recognized the hyper-stylized Bézier curves she used to set up the courses of river valleys and their dependencies like bank angles and the stratification of plant communities as they radiated upland from the rushing water. As the video zoomed in and sped across the plain, she could make out an ever-so-slight lag in the real-time rendering of leaves and individual blades of grass at the periphery of the field of view.
Over thumping bass, a woman repeated the same phrase in different languages—Aaliyah first recognized the Russian. “только работая вместе, мы можем исцелить нашу планету” (“Only by working together can we heal our planet.”)
She messaged Arayat, “what do u know about novel environments?!”
An hour later, he wrote back with an encrypted message. Aaliyah opened an anonymous VPN and clicked a link. A hacked folder of images cascaded open—aerial shots and shaky-cam videos of clear-cut forests, strip mines, polluted rivers, oil spills, decimated coastlines, and dead and dying animals. Each had a corresponding video animation, simulating a thriving ecosystem, placed over the wrecked landscape. A text doc listed dozens of contracts—with governments, oil and gas companies, chemical manufacturers, and multinational e-commerce giants. The list went on and on. Under Novel’s logo read, “Bringing your clients environmental peace of mind.”13
A possibility: as physical ecologies and resource restoration become increasingly monetized—and indeed they already are in terms of carbon offset markets and cap-and-trade schemes—representations of an economized, productive ecosystem will become as valuable in accessing credit lines and capital as slick, leed-Platinum-certified steel-and-glass towers. As cities max out on luxury real estate, developers will move to the landscape to expand the market. Social media campaigns will drive corporate investment in post–climate change restoration schemes, and the stock market will begin to trade on habitat futures.
Novel Environments Inc., according to an exposé pulled from the dark web included in the folder, was AI run amok—its immense visualization potential to mask the ecological and subsequent geopolitical destruction wrought by maximizing the mining of resources used to develop its graphics cards, would make the AI smarter and smarter and smarter at the expense of everything else that wasn’t written into its initial task.14
The stock market will, of course, be driven by AI—it already is—and will operate to maximize return on investment. Paperclip maximizer theory, laid out by Nick Bostrom in 2003, describes an Artificial “General” Intelligence (AGI) that is initially instructed by human programmers to collect paperclips. The paper-clip collecting AGI will stop at nothing to buy paperclips, steal paperclips, instigate wars, manufacture and mine materials for paperclips, ultimately even building its own technology to expand its operation to an interplanetary then intergalactic scale. Paperclip theory hovers over the shoulders of programmers working with artificial intelligence, perhaps because it feels so familiar. A pillaging AGI, unencumbered by consciousness, is comforting in the face of devastation wrought by the “thinking man.”
“This is my forest!!!,” she messaged Ayrat.15
Eventually, as climate change detaches the first-world elite from the impoverished witnesses of environmental catastrophe, perhaps simulated landscapes will populate the browsers of those within protected zones. Nature is healing. These environmental overlays may even be crowdfunded via the shame of the citizens of late capital—the children of the pandemic might feel most comfortable socializing virtually in simulated landscapes anyway. Those who live in the reality of environmental devastation, meanwhile, may face online gatekeeping: their self-documentation suppressed by watchful algorithms, downvoted as fake news.
The next message from Aryat included a bus ticket QR code and an address where she could pick up a counterfeit identification card. Forty-eight hours later, Aaliyah pulls back the stiff, silvery blue velveteen bus curtain and takes a peek at the pre-dawn scene. Excited, she puts in her headphones, unlocks her phone, and scrolls to The Chemical Brothers.
The long shadow of an intercity bus shudders as it crawls along the countryside punctuated by crow-covered utility poles near the approaching Schengen Area border control. Fluorescent-yellow-and-green vinyl wrapped-mobile phone aposematism, furled side view mirror antennae, and purple petrol sheen of the bug-eyed windshield complete the anthropomorphosis. Farmhouse windows mirror creamsicle chrome, and sharp, dark shadows slide slowly across their facades like hangar doors. Synthesized hand claps yield to robot ribbits and whooshing synthetic strings as the rapid-fire disco bass line morphs into blaster pulses. The beat drops and lullaby horns take flight. “You should feel what I feel, you should take what I take, you should feel what I feel, you should take what I take.” Frost dusted haystacks pitch and yaw like buoys in suspended animation, their dusty Easter pastels glowing against the deep-blue-to-sherbet gradient sliver of cloudless sky. LED billboards stack together tighter and tighter, coolly lighting up the chilled air. The bus driver, in pajamas, appearing to have just woken up herself, leans into the microphone and says—first in Bulgarian, then in sweetly self-aware English, “Welcome to the European Union.”
by Stalgia Grigg
by Stalgia Grigg
In fall of 2020, I took a teaching job at City College in Harlem, a historically Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood in upper Manhattan. Upon arriving I began searching for apartments while under mandatory quarantine. Website after website offered oddly contiguous archives of identical apartments, each made using unfamiliar software with names like GeoCV and Matterport.
These software companies offer workflows to developers that streamline capturing and distributing immersive virtual apartments. Each apartment is captured with a 360 camera and a 3D scan. The photo results are tiled into a flat texture that is projected onto a sphere that surrounds the viewer; imagine a bubble you can’t escape. As the viewer moves through the bubble, a tumorous 3D scan briefly crossfades into view only to be replaced by another flat spherical projection. The boundary between each identical apartment often nothing more than a single character shift in the URL.
There is violence in the kudzu-spread of lowest-common-denominator remodels. Deliberately homogenous and artificially accessible, the aesthetic of the recently renovated apartment is the aesthetic of class war. Before the pandemic, this was easier to sniff out, to dodge. Pre-pandemic, apartment viewing provided an opportunity to sense a context; even hastily laid hardwood flooring couldn’t prevent you from detecting history, smelling the neighbor’s cooking, reflecting honestly on whether you were being used to change a building, a block, a neighborhood.
This project serves as an archive of the virtual rental market of Harlem in the fall, an exploration of the tools used to distribute them, and an exercise in fake neutrality.