New Imaginaries for Crypto Design

The Deep Web evokes images of an underworld, the locus of shadow economies where illicit trade takes place that cannot bear the light of day. This image is understandable if you consider the bad press encrypted channels have received over the years. News reporting mostly publishes sensational stories on cyber-criminals operating in a virtual legal vacuum on the Darknet, arms and human trafficking, murder-for-hire and extreme gore on contraband websites such as Silk Road. Data leaks, such as the Panama Papers, further politicised this so-called “invisible” web. Furthermore, the popular Deep Web documentary (2015) helped shape a dramatic image of these impenetrable parts of the Internet as a lawless cove, mainly populated by bandits, predators, and pirates.

The Deep Web is much more than an online black market teeming with illegal activity. In fact, the Deep Web contains an estimated 96% of all the content to be found circulating online. What defines this vast hidden depository is simply that it resides in encrypted databases and channels that cannot be indexed or accessed through search engines. Apart from crypto-currencies, porn and narcotics, this concealed territory contains a wide range of encrypted communication, academic and subscription-based journals, classified information, hidden wikis and onions, and much more that remains inaccessible when browsing and surfing the surface. This realm empowered many citizens during the Arab Spring, providing encrypted communication channels to coordinate protest. Indeed, it is an important communication tool for human rights NGOs, political dissidents, activists, and every other user who – for any reason whatsoever- wishes not to be tracked, stalked, and spied on. It is one of the remaining bastions of individual privacy against corporate and governmental snooping and data mining, a place where anyone can cloak themselves in anonymity or pseudonymity.

Five years after the Snowden revelations, we can safely conclude that the focus on surveillance and individual privacy has not lead to a thriving debate on the infrastructure, imagination and accessibility to information on the web.
It is difficult to fathom the implications of people’s bodies, purchases, chatter, random activities and affiliations constantly being collected, analysed, exploited and stored in a data-grid that is inaccessible and incomprehensible for most people. The privacy discourse has failed to spark the collective imagination – no matter how large and justified the outrage at leaking data and surveillance. Furthermore, the centralization of the internet’s infrastructure into a few data centers is going hand-in-hand with the content concentration of the Surface Web by five Tech Giants and the encroaching “appification” of the Web. Daily web use is threatened by a lock-in web culture, uninhibited data mining, a stagnating debate on individual privacy, and an inaccessible and seemingly spammy Underworld Web. A dead end? Not necessarily.

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The Deep Web Needs New Metaphors

The Internet is often thought of in terms of naval metaphors. It can be thought of as a sea that can be surfed and navigated by search engines. Of course, metaphors are often meant to grasp something unfamiliar by comparing it to something familiar. One of the more dominant metaphors of the Deep Web is the iceberg. The top of the iceberg, above the surface of the water, represents the Surface Web. The Surface Web contains all the data that can be “explored” by search engines like Google, Yahoo, Opera or Bing. Diving below the surface leads you into the nether regions of the Deep Web, with a vast amount of data that cannot be indexed by any of the popular search engines.

In this iceberg metaphor, the part of the iceberg which is ‘below the water,’ shapes popular understanding of the Deep Web. As we all know, visual language, symbols and metaphors help us to describe, classify, and understand the world around us; they are crutches for our mind. Images are often more powerful and influential than the things they represent, think of the cloud or the envelope and trash can icon in your (web) mail. Images are crucial vehicles of meaning making and production. In turn, the image of the iceberg gives shape to the Surface Web, and affects how the Deep Web comes to mind. For many, the Deep Web seems inaccessible to ordinary internet users – a members-only club of tech savvy geeks, hackers and fishy figures.

Have you ever sent an email through webmail? Have you ever paid your share of a dinner bill to a friend via online banking? Watched a movie on Netflix? Read an article on a password-protected website? Unwittingly, many of us use the Deep Web on a regular basis.

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How can we begin to understand the structures that facilitate all of these every-day actions? What visual interpretations shine a light on the deep waters to reveal a more nuanced picture than that of the iceberg? This exhibition dives into these lesser-known parts of the web in order to resurface with a trove of imaginaries and metaphors. Let’s decrypt the ‘deep’, enter its seemingly panic-room locked doors, explore its corridors, let light pour in and stale air escape.

This exhibition, organised by the the Institute of Network Cultures and NeMe is a result of an open call to artists, designers, researchers and visionaries who are creating new images of the Deep Web.


Exhibition coordinator: Inte Gloerich
Speaker: Patricia de Vries
Photography and video: Sakari Laurila
Exhibition design: Helene Black
Coordination in Cyprus: Yiannis Colakides and Helene Black
Artists: Jonas Althaus, Jeanine van Berkel, Anna Bleakley, Camilo Cezar, Félicien Goguey, Arantxa Gonlag, Juhee Hahm, Abdelrahman Hassan, Kimberley ter Heerdt, Jake Henderson, Julia Janssen, Nikki Loef, Melani de Luca, Gianluca Monaco, Julia la Porte, Roos du Pree, Renée Ridgway, Yinan Song, Carlo ter Woord, Amy Wu.

State Machines: Art, Work and Identity in an Age of Planetary-Scale Computation

Focusing on how such technologies impact identity and citizenship, digital labour and finance, the project joins five experienced partners Aksioma (SI), Drugo More (HR), Furtherfield (UK), Institute of Network Cultures (NL), and NeMe (CY) together with a range of artists, curators, theorists and audiences. State Machines insists on the need for new forms of expression and new artistic practices to address the most urgent questions of our time, and seeks to educate and empower the digital subjects of today to become active, engaged, and effective digital citizens of tomorrow.


creative europe

This project has been funded with the support from the European Commission. This communication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.