Vera’s Wilde West Web
Traveling, especially traveling alone, gives us an opportunity to be an undefined version of ourselves. Job titles, family connections, personal problems or Facebook updates are meaningless to the stranger in town. While you are traveling, you can step outside of your own expectations of yourself. You’re not the person who is afraid of heights, you’re the person who climbs to the top of the Eiffel Tower and takes a picture of the view. Traveling allows you to own your anonymity.
Home should be the place where we are truly ourselves, but it's also where who we are is in the context of; the relationships we have, the objects we own and the things we enjoy. It’s what we escape from, or miss, while we travel, that context, being known to the people you care about. Home is being known, being understood without having to explain.
We are still building our home on the internet. We use terms like 'communities' alongside 'anonymity', creating a battleground between traveling and being at home. A struggle between being recognized and understood; and remaining anonymous, being free.
The Dark Web is part of the Deep Web, which are parts of the internet not indexed by search engines and contain everything from porn and drugs to whistle-blowing and political discussions. The Dark Web is just one network where there is no struggle between ideas of anonymity and home. Everyone there wants to be the stranger in town.
Alabama born writer, artist, traveler and academic, Vera K Wilde, has just published a book of her poetry, Push Coasts, which explores themes of home, traveling and expression. Vera also recently completed a residency at Hack42 in Arnham, Netherlands. Her project there was to re-brand the so called Dark Web. We had a chance to talk to Vera about her work and her views on home, traveling and cyber freedom and it was a really interesting talk.
Tell us a bit about your book Push Coasts and, as a traveler, how your sense of place has influenced your artwork, where do you feel is home?
The book is about redefining the concept of home and feeling at home. It presents a cycle of journey poems in four sections: Home Shore, New Coasts, Back and Gone, and Home in the World. So the progression is the universal one from a place of origin and conflict, to a place of experimentation, back to the place of origin, changed, and then away again in an orthogonal way. A launch rather than a leaving, a creative departure.
What that launch in the fourth section requires that’s similar to the experimentation effort in the second is a spirit of “show up and play.” Scientists talk about this in terms of decentralized information systems, like democracies in politics and markets in economics. Artists talk about it in terms of improv, just saying yes, being present, synchronicity, serendipity.
What’s different about that section and the orthogonal response it expresses is the freedom within it finds and grows from a seed of trust. Philosophers from Epictetus to Sartre have talked about how important it is to have freedom in your own mind without regard to external conditions. One of the things modern empirical insights from network analysis adds to how we can understand freedom, in this potentially atomistic way, is the idea that information and emotion bloom along social networks like viruses.
Trust is at that intersection between information and emotion. We intuitively make decisions about trustworthiness all the time based on information cues from lots of sources, and we feel trusting (or distrusting) at that automatic, or gut, cognitive process level. We’re constantly learning more about how trust is a deeply historically rooted network phenomenon. That matters for all sorts of outcomes, from individual well-being to country-level economic development.
So all it takes is that seed of trust, and freedom within can spread in a way that actually creates security in reality. Trust, like mistrust, spirals at lots of levels. People need trust to feel safe to flourish, to find home in the world that is our house.
Do you come from a creative family, what do your parents do?
My father and mother are good people who have done a lot to help others. I haven’t seen my dad in over 20 years, but he’s saved some lives as a surgeon. My mum uses her counseling and teaching skills in a range of volunteer work with good folks like the Make A Wish Foundation. As a single mum, she lost a few jobs when I was growing up for whistle-blowing, so I’m very interested in how communities can improve helping people who get hurt doing the right thing. For example, we have needed better national security whistle-blower protections in the U.S. for quite some time.
You have a very varied, impressive academic track record, what is it that compels you to make art and music and how do you balance the academic work with the creative work?
Thank you. I just keep doing what’s next. It is not an analytical choice, but in analytical terms, it’s Adorno versus Orwell. Adorno said “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” (“Cultural Criticism and Society,” Prisms, 34, 1949). He was talking about how reproducing culture when that culture has been deeply destructive of humanity is an inhumane act.
Orwell said, in “Politics and the English Language” that culture is always going to be heterogeneous and fluid and it’s up to you as a person, artist, scientist, voter, to say what you mean and narrate reality, the human experience, in a way that tells the truth while holding yourself responsible for the fact that the narrative shapes the reality.
Orwell’s point was that this is actually very hard, it’s revolutionary in times of trouble, and it’s core political work that we do as artists and intellectuals. Expression is how we get perspective on the cultural ocean we’re swimming in, shape it and learn.
Tell us a bit about your artist residency in Arnhem, Netherlands, and as you travel, have you noticed any differences in the art scene in Europe as opposed to the UK or the USA?
Now I’m in Lisbon! I’m having a great time and learning a lot exploring the arts scenes in different countries. When I was busking in Mexico City in April, people were incredibly warm, the street performing culture was totally surreal and vibrant, and the police were super professional and nice enough to let me experiment.
In London, it was immediately obvious that the Anglo cultural norms about personal and emotional space change the norms that influence what artists feel ok doing. There is still a really vibrant and beautiful arts scene there, London was the first place that felt like coming home, but it’s a bit more subdued and expensive!
Versus Arnhem, coming to the Continent led me to Amsterdam and Berlin, which feel safer to me because there’s less barbed wire and weapons, more bicyclists and overall a slower pace. Amsterdam is really a place of peace. Berlin is like London but for people on an artist’s budget. I think Berlin probably is now again what it was for Western artists in the late 80s; cheap enough to show up and play, fast enough to network with other up-and-coming artists.
The residency you did at Hack42, re-branding the Dark Web, sounds really interesting. Can you tell us a bit about your experience of exploring the Dark Web, what form did your research take and what was your most surprising discovery?
My artist residency at Hack42 was incredibly inspiring. It gave me a chance to talk with leading hacktivists about Internet freedom, what it means, and how we can help the world feel safe to flourish by giving people access to and a better understanding of freedom on the web. I never would have written a lightning talk for the upcoming Chaos Computing Camp in Berlin on re-branding the so-called Dark Web, which we should be calling the EDTR web, without awesome Friday night conversations and way too much Flora Power in the hackerspace.
The residency was also a great opportunity for you to combine your academic work with some many of your creative talents, including song writing. Can you tell us a bit about how you re-interpreted the EDTR web through creative means? How did you feel about the artwork born of this project and did you find one art form to be stronger or better in defining / describing the EDTR?
I need a soundproof room under the ocean for songwriting. I have a really good ear, which is sometimes an asset but also a problem when I can’t stand to hear myself making the necessary mistakes - and God forbid anybody else should. So one of my next projects is to learn Protools and work on translating my poetry into song forms that are good enough to put out on the web and perform, but I have to do a lot of work to get the 30ish songs or song drafts I have honed to the best 10-13, rewritten with tighter structure, accompanied as simply as possible. I have no music production experience beyond crawling into my shower with an M-Track, so this is a big project. But I keep randomly meeting music producers and learning how to go about it better.
The EDTR net has a song structured around a refrain that comes from the acronym—Express (feel what you feel), Dissent (say what you think), Teach (share what you know), Resist (fight to the brink). It will take music to re-brand the Dark Web in a way that makes it safer and more sustainable as the crucial resource it is for people who do important work like resisting oppressive governments, helping people out of abusive relationships or gangs, or simply expressing their sexuality in places where it’s still illegal to be who you are.
And it’s fine if EDTR net never catches on, you know? The Dark Web can be a good thing too. I love Ursula K. LeGuin’s description of darkness in “A Left-Handed Commencement Address”, “darkness is your country... where the future is... live there not as prisoners... but as natives... Do your work there... in the earth we have looked down upon... in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls. ”
It’s a very timely project you worked on, in so much that there are huge questions about how big data and personal information is handled / will be handled in the future. Every Google search is logged and recorded and more people are concerned about their private information being used for things they did not intend. Anonymity online is becoming more desirable and the use of VPNs (virtual private networks) is on a steady rise. How do you think big data should be handled, especially in light of the work being done to develop artificial intelligence?
On big data, I’m a big fan of evidence-based work, but more data doesn’t always mean more evidence. So on one hand, studying big data right now is like studying football as a recently arrived Martian. We have to watch and learn as we go rather than making rigid rules too early on in the process, or we’ll never figure out how this thing works. But on the other hand, it would always be good to see more field experiments where, for example, researchers help local and state law enforcement agencies try different ways of engaging with communities online to combat hate group recruitment and build community trust, rather than approaching big data and the privacy problems it creates as an adversarial process.
In this vein, some of my research, writing, and painting has explored the forgotten Constitutional history of privacy as a Fifth Amendment right. I think it’s important for America and the world to remember and reaffirm that we don’t cross the sacred line of bodily space in interrogations, that’s what the Fifth Amendment was really about, was recognizing that you owe your confessions to God and not the state, and that no Star Chamber or homegrown analogue could compel such confessions by physically or otherwise invading your sacred internal sanctuary, this place inside you Maya Angelou has talked about. A sacred space that you keep absolutely pristine and where you can meet God, and a space that lets you say no when it’s no.
On artificial intelligence—machine computing lets us automate forms of analysis and calculation people are generally not that good at, like Bayesian updating. Doing that right in medical diagnosis and security decisions can help save lives. Doing it wrong can institutionalize bias in invisible ways. So there are huge positive potentials here, but like with any tool, we want to be thoughtful and keep growing our understanding of how best to use AI, especially in institutional settings like hospitals and governments.
More broadly, Herbert Simon has written on how satisficing works better for human decision-making in general than optimizing, and Hubert Dreyfus has written on how it’s really hard to model high-level human intelligence that comes from unconscious or automatic cognitive processes, intuition, Gestalt insights, and the like. Both of their work might bear on the limited use value of AI in situations where having good people make discretionary rather than rule-bound decisions works better than making people act like automatons. It’s a really simple example, but police in Nevada gave out more traffic tickets when they were required to document more about their stops in an effort to combat perceived bias. Police who were free to exercise discretion did so kindly on average, and the increase in paper work made them more likely to ticket. Sometimes bureaucracy and technology protect civilization, and sometimes they need to get out of the way so people can have tea.
There are a few questions about power when it comes to data, especially given that data sharing tends to be a one way street, where the general public are encouraged to share all information while those in power share very little, some even choosing to pay private companies to remove information on them from the internet. As an artist, collectors are just as interested in the person behind the art as they are in the artworks they buy, so knowing how much of yourself to share online can be tricky. Can you tell us some of your thoughts on this?
You put your finger on a difficult tension here. The creative process can be intensely private and deeply social, and the market side of an artist’s job is even tougher in that regard. You have to be on message and have good boundaries, but your role is to tell the truth. So this is something that I think I’ll be working on as an artist for a long time.
More broadly, knowledge is power. That’s why it’s so important for citizens to take care of our political societies by advancing transparency through legal means like FOIA (the Freedom of Information Act) in the U.S., translating information for a broad audience through art and otherwise promoting truth and justice for all.
Sometimes it might seem like governments and organizations disagree about the importance of that core mission, but we all basically share that common vision.
I think one of the hardest problems about democratizing power through knowledge is choosing what to focus on. Because attention is a limited cognitive resource, and we the people have a political obligation to use it in a way that promotes freedom and peace. When prejudice and violence infringe, we must recognize and denounce them, but we must do so without losing faith in the human goodness that makes mutual recognition possible, that makes hope credible, and that makes us who we are. We must seek justice not as opponents of authority or victims of power, but justice in the form of lifeblood for our positive potentials, justice as forgiveness.
There are some interesting developments happening in America right now, in terms of surveillance, the signing of the USA Freedom Act and the purging of phone records. Can you tell us a bit about how you view what’s happening in America from an ‘outside the country’ perspective?
I’ve been busy with other things, but am glad to hear about some sensible reforms. The system is supposed to work like a market, with different organizations lobbying for prioritization of different interests, security agencies for security first, civil liberty groups for liberty, Congress juggling their demands. Looks like it’s probably working. When we decentralize counter-terrorism and re-conceptualize it as community trust-building that is when we’ll really know the process is working, because that’s what it would mean to apply procedural justice research, showing that trust makes security and everything we know about chaotic systems - Lorenz, or butterfly, systems in game theory - like messy human societies. Trust, in this information system context, is like a pattern you want the brain to hone in on and have confirmation bias in favour of so that people will be more likely to recognize and act on evidence of trust, creating a spiral of positive interactions.
I’m so on the outside of all this though.
Very humbly and very cautiously, I would want to suggest that we are still at the beginning of a new arms race that will go on for a long time. It’s a surveillance arms race. It’s analogous to the Cold War because it’s a soft power game with hard power implications. Connecting with other activists online to work for freedom was essential for Egyptians at the beginning of the Arab Spring, until the government figured out how to use surveillance to track down those online networks. The same thing happened in Syria, where supposedly the Assad regime was slowing down the Internet in the early days of the uprising to keep activists from networking effectively. And then they figured out they could put out malware and hunt down networks of opponents that way, so they sped it up.
The heart of freedom is too big to surveil, and that is what anonymous spaces for decentralized networks to communicate protect. You do not get to decide what people do with freedom. That is why liberal democracies are hard to protect and serve, but that one of the challenges law enforcement have to grapple with, within the bounds we give them under the law. What opponents of Internet freedom sometimes fail to understand is that people are basically good, and we will do good work, innovate in art and science, help people in need, share what we learn, when we feel safe to flourish. What proponents of Internet freedom sometimes fail to understand is that the web itself, and contemporary telecommunications as a whole, are already too big to surveil, and that’s what can conceivably justify bulk metadata collection and retention programs.
Law enforcement who are risking their lives to uphold the law deserve every tool we can give them to do that, without subverting the very liberty they protect.
In your opinion, what is the best contribution artists can make to an increasingly digital future?
People like Amanda Palmer and Tim Ferriss, vibrant artist-entrepreneurs, do a great service to other artists and entrepreneurs by doing what they do and telling other people about it.
Bonus question: If you could star in any remake of any movie, which one would it be and why?
Casablanca. Something about beautiful beginnings.
You can find out more about Vera and her work by visiting her website, where you can read her thoughts on the forgotten Constitutional history of privacy. Vera’s book of poetry is available here: Push Coasts.
And her lightning talk for the upcoming Chaos Computing Camp in Berlin can be found here.
If you'd like to know more about Hack42, take some time to explore their website.
Have a look and a read of these two artists work and what they are doing in the midst of our digital revolution: Amanda Palmer and Tim Ferriss