Artist James Bridle's latest work questions where we belong as inhabitants of the web.
London-based artist James Bridle wants to reveal the internet's underlying legal and political structures, and question what it means to be a citizen in the digital age. But instead of exploring citizenship in terms of our links to one country, with his latest work Citizen Ex, he wants to construct citizenship algorithmically.
Citizen Ex, which is released today, is a downloadable browser plug-in that logs each site you've visited, and shows you where in the world it is. Based on your browsing patterns, it breaks down your online identity into a series of country percentages that make up your overall "algorithmic citizenship". This is represented by a badge composed of the flags of nations you've visited online.
"I wanted to understand the internet as infrastructure that exists in the real world and which has importance in different jurisdictions," said Bridle in a recent interview. "You can change your algorithmic identity over time as you can see where you're visiting and make decisions based on what you're learning about the physical structures of the web."
So though you might be using the internet from one specific location, your algorithmic citizenship—likely composed of a mash-up of different nation states—reveals just how far and wide your digital footprints have travelled. For example, based on a few days of internet surfing, I turned out to be 89.5 percent American, 3.2 percent Irish and 1.9 percent French plus 18 other nationalities, even though I have a Japanese passport, and grew up in the UK.
"Most of the anglophone internet is in America," explained Bridle. "Quite a few sites that you wouldn't necessarily expect are hosted on infrastructures based out in the US because the web is not as distributive as we'd like to think."
Bridle's browser extension takes its name from Digital Studies and American Culture Professor John Cheney-Lippold's study on how the NSA's surveillance tactics drastically changed notions of citizenship in the digital age. Lippold essentially asked how exactly conventional privileges of citizenship could be guaranteed following the Snowden revelations, when more people knew that online surveillance is the norm, crosses borders, and is closely linked to IP addresses rather than individuals.
With Citizen Ex, Bridle wants to promote what he calls "system literacy". After all, the more we know about how the web works, the more informed we'll be in the face of the NSA, GCHQ, and other governmental spy agencies. "No one's taken a picture of the whole internet; you can't really, as it's one of those structures that's too vast for us to understand. But it's the job of art, critical writing and journalists to try and explore and explain it as much as possible," said Bridle, noting that the more users understood how the internet worked, the more agency we'd have over it.
Issues surrounding citizenship have long interested Bridle. In prior works such as Seamless Transitions, he considers it from a human rights and democracy angle by addressing the legal procedures of immigration. But aside from the political connotations of citizenship, Bridle's also interested in how our citizenships are no longer linked to specific physical geographies. His latest work was co-commissioned by The Space and was created for the Southbank Centre's Web We Want festival.
"The type of places that we go online are as important as the places that we are in," he said. "I'm interested in exploring how we increasingly feel internationalised, and how we increasingly identify with non-geographical groupings."