Can Online Art Escape the Internet?

I am often told that the Internet, like an elephant, never forgets. This is less a truism than it is a rhetorical attempt at behaviour modification: we should, as people who use and like and defend and want the Internet, act as though the Internet never forgets. Yet this does not adequately capture the whole truth about what, if anything, the Internet can be. If the Internet were a single thing—a very large if, but bear with me—it would not be an elephant with an impressive memory. It would be memory itself.

Like human memory, the capacity for the Internet to retain everything is real, and purely theoretical. In practice, the Internet remembers selectively. Our feeds are generated by algorithms that prioritize words signifying good news; the photos we post are of celebrations and other socially gratifying rituals, like birthdays or brunch; we warn each other about clicking on links written in ways we know will inflame or anger us. In the worst parts of the single Internet hive mind, the reverse is true: forums where votes are based on who is the worst, where the most hateful and destructive behaviour is considered admirable, where the point is to constantly be inflamed or angered or to cause such reactions in some other user. But it is the Internet’s ability to retain everything, in caches and screenshots and other digital traces, and then to recall selectively, that makes it most like a human brain, fumbling as it tries to remember whether the front door got locked that morning, or who posted that funny tweet, or where, exactly, a person of interest is geotagged via an IP address.

“Beautiful Interfaces: The Privacy Paradox,” a group show curated by Helena Acosta and Miyö Van Stenis at Reverse in New York until May 14, is an attempt to create new traces for recall outside the monolithic memory of the Internet. In the space, several brightly coloured and aggressively patterned beanbag chairs wait for people to sit with their iPhones and iPads. There is no art physically present. Visitors must log into Wi-Fi networks named for each artist in order to see their contributions, all of which are concerned not with what the Internet can remember, but what it is incapable of forgetting.

“Beautiful Interfaces” asks participants to consider what we give up every time we log on: in its press release, the curators state that “everyday online social practices could look like harmless actions through a naïve eye, but they contain the potential for unexpected consequences when they are traced and connected to algorithmic surveillance systems.” They cite Facebook’s recent adoption of facial recognition software of one such example of ways a seemingly harmless action—having a Facebook account—could lead to the loss of any separation between public and private.

Read the full article at CANADIAN Art