ACT graduate student Gary Zhexi Zhang (SMACT ’19) contemplates the evolution of the World Wide Web and how we could build a better internet or at least attempt to see it for what it really is.
Gary Zhexi Zhang is an artist and writer based in Somerville, Massachusetts. His work engages with the legacies of ecology, social theory, and information systems. Recent projects include the Loop Discover Prize, Barcelona; The Decentralized Web Summit, Internet Archive; Cross-feed, Glasgow International 2018; and vdrome.org. He is this year’s residency artist at the Delfina Foundation, London. As a writer, Zhang is a staff contributor to Frieze.
The below was originally published by Zhang on the Walker Art Center’s Soundboard.
I’ve been told that the web used to move much more quickly in the ’90s, with every year resembling a completely different landscape. Getting online in the 2000s, I experienced the last years of an “older” kind of web that still felt exploratory, accidental, and intimate on an individual level. Homepages were more private than professional; strangers would pop up out of nowhere to ask for your “asl”—age, sex, location—because you could be anyone, anywhere. There was an implicit trust, a kind of performative vulnerability that has since moved elsewhere—into private networks, offline spaces, or live broadcasts.
When contemplating its evolution, it can be useful to think of the web as a built environment—a house or a city—rather than a technology that people use. The web is a “social space” in the sense that Henri Lefebvre understood it as he roamed the city streets: as both “a product to be used” and “a means of production,” both the medium itself and the set of relations it produces. To continue with the urbanist metaphor, today’s web has been gentrified, commodified, and colonized. Those earlier spaces of intimacy and exploration are now few and far between, replaced by homogeneous surfaces and vowelless trademarks. If artists have a role to play, perhaps it’s to put a little friction back into this seamless dystopia in hopes of a more intimate, communal, and thoughtful web.
Part of this desire for exploration and friction revolves around an ideal of tool-making. If the web is a built environment increasingly designed and constructed by corporations, tool-making offers users a way to regain some of their lost agency. Short of dismantling the system entirely, tools can also reveal the ideological structures beneath the web’s smooth, commercial surfaces. These tools can be playful, like Kalli Retzepi’s clickhere, which renders web pages as minimalist, abstract canvases, highlighting their most interaction-hungry elements. Or privacy-oriented, like TrackMeNot, by Helen Nissenbaum, Daniel C. Howe, and Vincent Toubiana, an extension that hides users’ web searches in plain sight using a cloud of false queries, so that it’s harder for search engines to profile. More ambitiously, we are also seeing the resurgence of peer-to-peer web technologies, such as Beaker Browser, Mastodon, or Scuttlebutt, which offer a decentralized alternative to contemporary platform monopolies. These technologies imagine a different kind of online landscape, in which web users are servers as well as clients, co-constituting the spaces they inhabit.
For better or worse, there is an element of the “American Dream” in all this. The French historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote admiringly of the networks of self-governing American towns in the early 19th century, which he felt to be a “civic virtue” because they gave citizens a more active part in public affairs. Underlying the contemporary dream of a decentralized web is a utopian image of what the web was always supposed to be: a place where free-thinking individuals could transform the corrupt civilization in which they lived by building their own frontier worlds. It’s a vision that goes back to the web activism of the early ’90s, and further back still to the communalist counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s. And while their visions were empowering to a point, they also propagated an illusive universalism that ultimately led us to the singularitarian, libertarian technosphere we have today, with its unwavering commitment to Moore’s law as a measure of universal social progress.
As Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron noted in their insightful critique of the “California Ideology” way back in 1996, “In the digital utopia, everyone will be hip and rich.” It is perhaps unsurprising that tool-making has itself become an aesthetic with a kind of elite utilitarian-goth uniform for artists and developers alike. It takes a certain kind of person with a certain kind of privilege to say, “With the right tools, I will build a new world.” Often, it’s the kind of person who never has to live in the world as it is, at least not in any meaningful way—someone for whom the world really is as seamless and open as the web would like it to be.
To build a better internet, we should burn it down and start again from the ruins of the the one we have. Failing that, we should start to see the web for what it is: an ongoing political and ideological question about how to think in the world, and how to live together—relations held together by something as yet to be determined.