Got the Snowden Archive-in-a-Box working today. For reference, it needs to run on a Raspberry Pi 2, not a Raspberry Pi 3. It works exactly like a Pirate Box - you connect to the wifi network and visit 127.0.0.1 in your browser to view the contents. The big difference to just going to the online archive is you’re not connecting to the internet. No-one other than you and the Pi know that you’re doing what you’re doing. Its as off-the-grid as reading through a bunch of printouts.
Looking at it as an artwork I’m having many thoughts. Like a lot of this stuff it’s a really interesting idea with very little practical use. Maybe that’s a good enough definition of art, and if you were to see the piece in a gallery or museum without proper interacting with it you might well be satisfied. I was certainly very intrigued when I saw it in the Field Guide and loved the idea of it. Now I’ve got it running I’m not so sure.
Is there a genuine use-case to having this archive on an offline network? Is there anyone who will visit this location for whom accessing the Snowden archive digitally in a private manner is genuine need? Or is it just a tech-demo, to show that this sort of thing is possible?
What, ultimately, is the point of it?
Maybe I should add the optional extra - a packet-sniffing programme which monitors the network and shows what people are looking at while they browse the archive. That feels like it gets away from the practical use and moves into something more performance, more artistic. Right now it’s just a database on a network, something the actual website does much more efficiently.
I’ve been rather obsessed with this photo from Puerto Rico of people desperately standing around a cell tower waiting for the signal to come back on so they can try to contact family and get news and help. It reminded me of the mock-scandal about refugees coming off boats in the Mediterranean with nothing but smartphones and immediately sending selfies to show they’d arrived safely.
This sort of thing completely rubbishes the notion that networked phone activity is somehow fake or inferior to “real” human contact, but it also shows how much this access to networked communications has changed things. I’m very reluctant to draw conclusions, mainly because the people in these examples are in massively difficult situations that I can’t comprehend, but there’s something important going on there.
The obvious connect to my work is the Cargo Cult stuff I’ve been using as a frame of reference. The South Pacific cults emerged once the technology of the second world war vanished. Here the network has vanished in a natural disaster and they’re waving their phones to try and encourage it back. The waving is particularly futile at that distance - any signal from that tower would be strong. But the cargo cult thing isn’t done out of desperation - it’s more likely a control system to bring people in line. So I’m again, reluctant to use it here.
Ultimately the question of how we behave when the network vanishes is one that needs looking at, I feel.