Mimi Onuoha is a Nigerian-American, Brooklyn-based media artist and researcher. Her work uses code, text, interventions, and objects to explore missing data, AI-based technologies and the ways in which people are abstracted, represented, and classified. Onuoha has been in residence at Eyebeam Center for Art & Technology, Studio XX, Data & Society Research Institute, Columbia University’s Tow Center, and the Royal College of Art. Read more.
The act of creating often begins with the desire to achieve that which has been denied, either by force or feasibility. The birth of the internet was no different. The American military’s desire for secure communication during the Cold War translated into funding for academic research. From this familiar story, the internet was born.
That the World Wide Web that followed was neither especially wide nor encompassing of the whole world at its inception reflects the aspirational utopias embedded within it. Folded into those early days was an earnest enthusiasm for the potential of one world, flattened and connected.
(Only people with nothing to fear see the idea of a completely connected world as unequivocally good.)
In my first memory of the web, I am ten years old and writing an email to my best friend. We were quick to abandon long phone calls for the staccato of poking at a keyboard. The ping of receiving an email meant just for us was more exhilarating than the ring of the family landline could ever be. The internet was one thick line that toppled over cars and lawns from my house to hers.
By high school I had evolved. I lived multiple lives: immigrant eldest daughter, competitive teen athlete, earnest wannabe intellectual. The last of these lives played out across forums and blogs. My web friends existed in a mosaic of time zones, so company was a lavish resource. We shared art, wrote impassioned responses to one another’s stories and articles, and never gave our real names. They were the least important thing we had to offer. Through snatched minutes and hours, we happily claimed our own corner of the web, which belonged not to any one of us, but to all of us, yet only us.
Perhaps this is why, even as a teenager, I was so puzzled when I first read John Perry Barlow’s 1995 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Barlow declared cyberspace independent from governments, economic power, military force, race, property, identity, and movement. But the experiences I had online were as much as about the distance the medium provided as the intimacy it enabled with each other. In fact, the two were intertwined: My web friends and I were never bodiless atoms, divorced from reality. It was our histories, our cultures, our interests, and our identities that tied us together in the first place. Whereas Barlow wrote: “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity,” we might have said, “We have created a world just for the six of us, where we feel safe expressing the things we would not speak elsewhere.”
Contemporary history has shown that bodies and movement, like politics, cannot be left behind as one passes from offline to online space and back again. Try as we might, we cannot shed the histories that that we carry within us, and those structures of influence only thicken and solidify when ignored. But what fiction in the first place insists that freedom is the ability to leave such things behind, these things which we have defined ourselves against? And why should a utopia sidestep the messiness of multiple identities and collective living, when for the hardest things there has always been no way out but through?
The Jamaican-British cultural theorist Stuart Hall reminds us that everything both exists and is imagined. If artists want to reimagine the web, we must set aside the tendency to subscribe to a universal “us” that is blank, neutral, and anonymous (a.k.a white, Western, and tech-literate). Though the creators of the internet may have inscribed this monolithic into the beginnings of the medium, there is nothing in the cacophony of on/offline lives today that supports it. There is no World Wide Web, but many worlds of webs, wherein different groups with particular aims and interests bump into and overlap with one another. The groups, like the voices they represent, morph and shrink daily. But this is not a bug. There is power in the shifts.
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