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Reflections on Discussing The Critical Atlas of the Internet - what we say about our tools

image from Louise Druhle, the Internet as a pointimage from Louise Druhle, the Internet as a point

For my class Research and Creation, each of us were asked to choose a text for the class to read, and then lead a discussion on it. What follows is a summary of our conversation and my thoughts on it:

my own map of concepts of interest that come up for me when engaging with The Critical atlas of the Internetmy own map of concepts of interest that come up for me when engaging with The Critical atlas of the Internet

For my selected reading in Research + Creation, I chose to share Louise Druhle’s Critical Atlas of [the] Internet and an interview with the artist. When I circled back to this project — which I had come across in 2018 — I realized just how many of the visuals had stayed with me, and were popping up in my own notes and references recently. I was also curious to return to it now, when the Internet feels noticeably different from how it did in 2018. At that point I was just learning about the decentralised web and peer-to-peer networking, which was being excitedly championed by artists and creative technologists. This was peak Instagram-era from my perspective, YouTube’s pre-, mid-, and post-roll ads were only just starting, and it was before NFTs and AI content generation became popularised. Recently, I’d been reading and thinking about how digital spaces and interactions feel different now, especially compared to that time. I was curious to hear from everyone how they experienced the internet, and what they felt.

Not entirely unsurprisingly, people framed their experience of using the internet in terms of addiction and entrapment. A loss of agency came up throughout: “the Internet controls me”, it’s “sucking me dry”, recollections of a point in life before they “got addicted” to the Internet, and the sense that personal devices and the Internet is so embedded into our day-to-day lives that opting out isn’t feasible. Much of this seemed to conflate the Internet with social media, which was itself described as a “trench” and “the endless scroll”. There was frustration with trying to use Facebook to see what friends were up to — it’s promise and premise — and instead encountering unfiltered, substance-less content. This reinforces Druhle’s concept of the ‘slope’, the gravitational pull of these major players that establish walled ecosystems which centralise people’s activities. There was mention of some small communities online where interesting conversations were happening, but that wasn’t the general trend of the conversation. I wonder if this focus was because social media on the internet is a shared, common experience between us — it’s a common language and ‘synchorised’ place of mass media and pop culture — or if this was just a result of the discussion’s limitations. If it’s really the primary way my classmates experience the internet, that would be both surprising and saddening to me.

The evolution of the Internet in relationship to the evolution of people as ‘users’ was another idea that came up. Does human behaviour shape technology, or does technology shape human behaviour? Anecdotally, people shared observations about how their perception of time felt different prior to wide-spread use of digital devices, differences in how we communicate such as letter-writing vs. email-writing, changes in the human body’s physicality and chemical cycles in the form of “press buttons get treats”. And I agree! But upon reflection, I can’t remember if we made distinction in this case, between Internet, the web and technology. I think throughout the discussion there was some slippage and interchange between these terms. The World Wide Web is actually only a subsection of ‘The Internet’, which itself is a misnomer in that it’s made of a multitude of connected networks (inter-net). And in terms of technology, I like Ursula K. Le Guin’s definition: “Technology is the active human interface with the material world.”

This is from her rant about ‘technology’, where she complains about the word being used only to reference “the enormously complex and specialised technologies of the past few decades, supported by massive exploitation both of natural and human resources”, and that anything else is ‘low’ or ‘primitive’ technology. She suggests that a way to check this is consider any manmade object and whether you know how to make it. And when, most likely, you find some thing which you don’t know how to make — there’s always the potential to learn. “That’s the neat thing about technologies. They’re what we can learn to do.”

It’s entirely possible to make your own network, computer, and even ‘cloud’. Depending on how elemental you get (like defining a computer as a “machine that can calculate, remember data and automate tasks”, as Taeyoon Choi does here), the learning curve may be more or less steep. What I find really rewarding, the more I learn about complex technologies like the computer and internet, is how it illuminates both pre-existing narratives and metaphors that came before me, as well as my own learned behaviours. (And on the extremely elemental level, lessons in physics.)

The metaphors we use to interface with our computers could have easily been something other than ‘desktop’ and ‘folders’; what if we hadn’t moved away from the site of the weaver’s loom? Would our ‘mouse’ become our ‘shuttle’? Maybe the chicken-and-egg question of human behaviour and technology can be framed within the boundaries of our lifetime, existing along a continuum of human development. This reminds me of the contemporary term ‘DIY’, which you could argue is just human activities of making, moving and repairing that we stopped doing at some point (mostly after the industrial revolution) and have once again ‘rediscovered’ (from this essay). Learning a technology — doing it yourself — allows you to edit, adapt, change, or create new technologies.

But the devices we use on the daily are highly abstracted, dense, sealed black boxes. The Internet that we attempted to conceptualise is mind-bogglingly vast, with unknowable and inaccessible parts to it, ever-changing and only glimpsed through a screen. People, collectively and individually, are both explorers and creators in the space. But does this progress mean a higher barrier of knowledge and future meaningful involvement?

In our discussion, we wondered about singularities in both machines and black holes, which both refer to a limit of knowledge, a point beyond which is ‘undefined’. This is interesting in regards to the internet because yes, on one side it is a kind of massive repository of human information created by people, but on the other it’s extremely difficult to map completely — perhaps even impossible, and thereby undefinable?

Devon brought up The Everything Bagel in Everything Everywhere All at Once, which led me to look it up again. It’s a joke/symbol that references the ‘Schwarzschild radius’, a scientific calculation used to find the size at which an object — any object, potentially — must be compressed to for it to become a black hole. The Internet can truly feel like everything everywhere all at once. Druhle says that for her, “the strength of the Internet is a concentration of power in a single point incorporating the whole world”. Now that makes me imagine, what would count towards the Internet’s Schwarzschild radius?

image from Louise Druhle, the Internet as a pointimage from Louise Druhle, the Internet as a point image of an oak gall, created by an oak tree in response to a parasitic wasps’ implant of its larvaeimage of an oak gall, created by an oak tree in response to a parasitic wasps’ implant of its larvae my 3D model of the submarine data cables, each point of connection stretching to the globe’s centre pointmy 3D model of the submarine data cables, each point of connection stretching to the globe’s centre point

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