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    Posted: 12 August 2012

    Written by Irma Driessen

    If you can't open it, you don't own it

    For a moment I am confused. This happens more often when you take language literally, and yet that is what I want to do; the words do not seem to be meant ironically. Sharing everything with everyone in your life. That must be hell, if you ask me. A world in which you constantly have to be on your guard, because this sharing of information usually happens without your knowledge or permission.

    Girls Around Me is an app that cleverly exploits the ignorance and indifference of many Facebook users. The app detects the presence of girls in its direct environment. It then supplies information which an ill-wisher could easily use to create confusion. ‘Hi. We were at secondary school together. How is your brother Mark?’

    Strictly speaking the app did not break any rules, but it is not surprising that it was soon informally labelled the ‘stalker-app’. And it remains a fact that Facebook keeps its privacy settings carefully hidden and changes them regularly. Facebook wants you to share everything with everyone in your life; bad luck if everyone happens to include someone with evil intentions.

    And even if you are aware of what information you are sharing, and are cautious and alert, other people can still share things on the network that you would rather they did not, for example, by tagging you in photos. Going online, logging in, means becoming visible and relinquishing your privacy.

    ‘In the future everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes,’ says David Darts, inventor of the PirateBox. He holds one up in the air, a small white box, hardly bigger than the palm of your hand – to use Darts’ own words, ‘basically internet-in-a-box’. It turns out to be a mini router with a USB flash drive sticking out.

    And indeed, for the time being it is a tiny internet, not just in view of its hardware, but also of its software. The USB flash drive contains a bare, completely stripped website, a chat box and a file-sharing mechanism. Exchanging files takes place anonymously. The PirateBox does not keep account of who logs in. This anonymity is an important criterion. In fact, Darts originally conceived the PirateBox to by-pass the firewall of his university network so that he could freely exchange files with his students.

    Anyone who happens to find himself in the vicinity of a PirateBox can access it freely via WiFi. Initially, an occasional user will perhaps be irritated by the limited possibilities of the network. He cannot use it to check his mail. But then he will possibly become charmed by what he finds. Which could in fact be all manner of things.

    I think the PirateBox is charming! I see it as a prop in a nostalgic spy movie. Cold-war romanticism. Which reveals that I do not live in a country ruled by a dictator, where the possession of certain documents is dangerous, where censorship abounds, where there is no freedom of expression and no free internet.

    And yet I think: charming. If without being asked I dump something into the mailbox of people I do not know, I am guilty of spreading spam, but if, again without being asked, I place something valuable on the street and see someone bend over and find something he was not looking for, is that not magic? In a time in which everything can be found at the click of a mouse, and in which internet is always on, scarceness and coincidence are appealing.

    Of course, the fact that I found mainly MP3 files in the PirateBox demonstrated by Darts, and no shocking WikiLeaks documents, says very little about the potentially revolutionary nature of the PirateBox and everything about man and his circumstances. Just supply him (= Western man) with some advanced tools with which to produce and distribute knowledge (internet) and before long he will be putting silly cat films online.

    Nevertheless, the PirateBox provides plenty of food for thought. In fact, behind the two symbols that Darts has attached to his PirateBox – a copyleft sticker and the Jolly Roger – is the idea, the ideology, that the internet should be open and free. Free as in free speech, not free beer. Free because nobody owns it. Free because the user is free.

    Contrary to what we might think, currently this freedom simply does not exist. ‘We don’t own stuff, we purchase it,’ says Darts. Apple does not supply a screwdriver with its hardware. It does not want you to unlock and jailbreak your iPhone in order to install other than its own permitted software. Apple does not want you to install a new battery yourself when within a year the old one fails or starts to function badly; it wants you to buy a new iPhone.

    ‘But if you can’t open it, you don’t own it,’ argues Darts. At least a book made of paper is really yours, you can do what you want with it and need not fear that someone will sneak into your house at night and steal it from your bookcase, like Amazon did to a few Kindle users with George Orwell’s 1984.

    Listening to Darts has made me realise: the new reality has materialised long since, piracy will only keep on increasing, it will spread from films and music to the world of things. Technology is unstoppable. Soon I will be able to print designer sunglasses and vases by Hella Jongerius at home. The BREIN Foundation is going to be busy.

    I do not know whether this is a bad thing. It all depends on the way you look at it – which is true of everything. Copyright was conceived at a time when it took a huge investment to print books, press gramophone records, and make films. Now tools are cheap. Anyone can make something and put it online. This undermines the old earnings models. You can get angry about this or take a different view and see illegal downloads as free viral marketing. Putting it more existentially, ‘How can you own the sound of music?’ (Aram Bartholl). And in fact, what is happening is not that new at all. Before the invention of the radio, the gramophone record and the CD, all musicians earned their money by performing live.

    Just as the PirateBox, Dead Drops is also an anonymous, offline, peer-to-peer file-sharing system, created in October 2010 by the Berlin-based media artist Aram Bartholl when he began to cement USB flash drives into all sorts of walls. Dead Drops form as it were an extra memory in the nooks and crannies of a city. Or extra letterboxes.

    With a Dead Drop– just as with the PirateBox – you can upload and download files, even though you have to place your laptop a little awkwardly against a wall to do so. And the project is not entirely offline; if it were, it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. A map can be found on deaddrops.com, a database showing all the locations of all the Dead Drops. Among other things, this site also relates how Bartholl placed a few Dead Drops in the MoMa building, so that anyone who owns a laptop containing a few works of art, could upload one and claim that one of his works is at MoMa.

    The strength of Dead Drops is that, unlike the PirateBox, the system does not need a source of energy. Because however liberating the new communication technology may be, we are dependent on energy. All these wireless devices, laptops and smartphones devour energy. ‘Every rechargeable device I own is like a new pet that must be fed,’ writes John Maeda inThe laws of simplicity.

    The PirateBox has to be plugged in, which hampers its use – even though during the masterclass Darts managed to dismantle a light bulb and tap its energy source in order to feed his PirateBox like a parasite. Dead Drops do not have this disadvantage. But they do have another: from day one, every technology, every storage medium, is doomed to become obsolete. Is anyone still using floppy discs, zip discs or DVDs? Within the foreseeable future, Bartholl will have left behind a world full of unusable protrusions.

    The provocation emanating from both projects – PirateBox and Dead Drops – is an interesting one. After all, what do we really want to share? With whom? And who is to be allowed to know? Are we willing to surrender ourselves just like that to a few American companies: Apple, Google, Facebook?

    ‘Don’t be evil’ is Google’s slogan. But as David Darts remarks: there are various levels of improper behaviour before we reach evilness. Because what seems to be a wonderful development, the world as a single huge network, with everyone being friends with one another, has an evil twin in an underlying architecture of espionage, surveillance, want of freedom, and loss of privacy. It is a system we pay for ourselves, by handing over our private data. Because it is not us who are the users of social networks, it is the advertisers.‘If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.’

    ‘True anonymity is too dangerous,’ says Eric Schmidt (former Google top man). ‘If you don’t have anything to hide, you have nothing to fear.’ But what if that is precisely the development that scares us? Imagine that one day you would really like to hide something – but this has suddenly become impossible.

    You can click but you can’t hide.

    There are alternatives. There is software that allows you to browse anonymously (Tor). There are social networks that are controlled by the users themselves (Diaspora). And, in the words of Maarten Doorman, we do not need to join the herd that obediently eats the fodder dished up by Google. We can place PirateBoxes on windowsills, or take them with us, and see what we come home with. We have a choice. We can participate and hide.


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