Today, I just want to write a brief post about a cool art project. The Dead Drop project, started by an artist in New York City, embodies much of the theory we talk about here at Cyborgology. And like most forms of art, it accomplishes this theorizing in a far more efficient and interesting way than that which we academics put forth with our many, many words.
The Dead Drop project began in 2010 by a Berlin based artist named Aram Bartholl. During his stay in NYC, he installed 5 Dead Drops in public places. Dead Drops are blank USB ports, cemented into city walls, trees, or other publicly accessible outdoor materials. People can upload and download files onto these ports. Anyone can install a Dead Drop, and Bartholl encourages worldwide participation. Bartholl describes the project as an “anonymous, offline, peer to peer file-sharing network in public space.” To date, there are 1,231 registered Dead Drops worldwide, comprising about 6,403 GB of storage space.
Here are some theoretical themes that this project touches on:
Although the bloggers of Cyborgology represent a diverse range of empirical and theoretical backgrounds, our work is tied together by the key assumptions of augmented reality, and the related critique of digital dualism. That is, we recognize the mutually constitutive relationship between digital and physical, and reject their dichotomization. The Dead Drop project is described as offline file sharing. By definition, this troubles separations of physical and digital. If one tried to categorize this art project, it would be less multi-media—which implies the combination of distinct media components—and more media integrated. The hardware of the USB literally merges with brick and mortar, as the wall now contains and dispenses digital files.
The affordances of new technologies, the ways in which professionals design them, the ways in which users utilize them, and the ways in which governing bodies access them, blur the lines between privacy and publicity. Never has this been clearer than in the wake of NSA’s entanglements with both large corporations and personal communications. Dead Drop files are expected to be anonymous, and yet, the content of files is, by design, publicly accessible. This begs the question: is anonymity possible once one accesses, shares, or produces digital content? The file sharer’s identity is always embedded within the file content—both symbolically and tangibly. The sharer leaves actual fingerprints on the brick wall and the USB, s/he leaves identifying code in the file itself, and traces of hir creativity, values, intentions, and identity in the content.
Prosumption refers to the blurring of production and consumption. For the Dead Drop project to work, it must be participatory. The artistic process involves both production and consumption of content. Artistic acts, in this case, consist of installing USBs, sharing files, and retrieving files. The role of Artist, though centralized around Bartholl, is distributed among the masses of consumers. One can produce and consume the art in varying degrees—observing the cemented USB and opting not to share or access files, approaching the USB and downloading or uploading files, or installing a USB oneself. Indeed, one can even prosume the art through vandalism, breaking a USB, for instance, or sharing corrupt files. Consumption, here, also always requires production, just as production always requires consumption, though these need not play even roles.
Politics of Information
Stewart Brand iconically argued that “Information Wants to Be Free.” Here at Cyborgology, David Banks has written extensively on the constructed scarcity of ideas and information. The Dead Drop project takes a similar political stance on access to information. Artist/participants are instructed to position the Drops in outdoor public places. Symbolically opposing encased ideas, Drops—and their content— are never to be trapped behind locked doors. Similarly, artists are instructed to only include file formats for which downloaders will need no special software or access codes. As the Manifesto states:
A Dead Drop is a naked piece of passively powered Universal Serial Bus technology embedded into the city, the only true public space. In an era of growing clouds and fancy new devices without access to local files we need to rethink the freedom and distribution of data
Of course, one needs both the hardware (e.g. laptop/tablet/mobile device) and the tech skills to access even these openly accessible files. As such, this project, like all work on information freedom, begs the question: free for whom, and under what conditions?
USBs are subject to physical and digital damage. They are also fully unregulated. Here is what the FAQ section says about security:
I don’t take any actions here! Dead Drops are placed in public space in the city. They are public domain. This is part of the concept and part of the game. (If you ever worked in the field of street art you know what it means to place things outside). In general everybody is responsible for the security of their computers and systems. Is the Internet a safe place?!? Malicious code for USB flash drives is a problem in general. They could (and will) be misused for malicious software. Be aware of that! Secure your system! Boot a virtual machine! Or ask your friend to go first … (It’s the thrill of the ‘glory hole’ says boingboing ;-). Also! Dead Drops themselves will be subject to digital and or physical vandalism. Don’t be sad when it happens. Keep growing and install a new drive in maybe slight different location.
In short, it is up to the individual to prevent and/or repair damage. This speaks to the unsecure nature of a free Internet, and the shift to individual stewardship of safety for self and others. More generally, it speaks to a tension between collaborative connection and individual responsibility, two seemingly opposing ethics brought forth in a connected era. This particular tension is one which, to my knowledge, has received little theoretical attention. I would like to see more. In this vein, I would like to know what’s out there that I’ve managed to miss.
*Special Thanks to Dr. Ryan Caldwell for bringing this project to my Attention
Pics via deaddrops.com
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