“Rough telepathy is something that removes the requirement for proximity and context,” explained Meredith Whittaker in the basement of New York’s New Museum this past Saturday, during her presentation at the eighth annual Seven on Seven. Organized by museum affiliate Rhizome, the event pairs seven artists with seven engineers, and tasks them with developing a project to present at a day-long conference. Whittaker, founder of Google’s Open Research Group, a publicly-spirited initiative dedicated to solving collective networked system problems, was matched with Ingrid Burrington, artist and author of a field guide to New York’s network infrastructure, Networks of New York. Their Powerpoint-aided lecture described scrying glasses and magic sigils, covens and warring kingdoms—a joking code for Internet infrastructure, delivered in straight-faced academic drag.
“The mercantile class was able to harness the power of rough telepathy for commerce and trade in a way that’s subverted the scope and vision laid out by the coven,” Burrington pontificated to the crowd of mostly start-up employees, artists and art collectors. “They operated in private kingdoms in a land called San Jose,” she continued, “and they were described as a people who exuded the drab chipperness of a rich man eager to be congratulated for driving a moderately priced car.” Laughs abounded. There was probably at least one owner of a moderately priced car in the audience.
At past conferences, the teams only had twenty-four hours to realize their projects, but this year the time limit was removed. When I met Whittaker and Burrington the day before they presented, they were already finishing each other’s sentences. Mutual friends had been trying to introduce them for a while, they said. “Turns out I meet all my friends by doing more work,” Burrington said. “Which is a function of late capitalism or neoliberalism depending which hipster you talk to,” Whittaker jumped in, before the two seamlessly launched a tangent discussing differing definitions of neoliberalism. Although Rhizome classified one as an artist and the other as a technologist, the two have similar skill sets. They both went to art school and know how to code, and both specialize in thinking about the material foundations and social organizations of networked communication.
The day before the conference, Burrington said she was just worried someone else might have a similar project—a concern that seemed both ridiculous and reasonable. But none of the other teams—which included artist and theorist Hito Steyerl in collaboration with mathematician Grant Olney Passmore, and artist and filmmaker Miranda July paired with writer and programmer Paul Ford—presented anything similar to Whittaker and Burrington’s fantasy-inspired performance. And it wasn’t just that no one else’s projects engaged themes of magic. None of the other pairs focused on web infrastructure, highlighting the influence that specific actors have over how technologies develop. Indeed, Whittaker and Burrington’s mistrust for the common story of infinite and inevitable progress was particularly refreshing at a conference where this year and in past years, many groups reproduce rather than critique these assumptions.
Whittaker and Burrington’s project was rooted in a desire to push back against received notions of the Internet. They wanted to critique the way technical knowledge gets passed off as wizardry, something that is unknowable or beyond the comprehension of laymen. “That is itself is a barrier,” Burrington said. “A lot of the exclusivity is cultural.” They were also interested in calling attention to the way misunderstandings of technology function through metaphor. For example, a couple of years ago, The Washington Post called for tech companies to build a “golden key” that would decrypt otherwise secure user communications for law enforcement. It’s something usually referred to as a “backdoor” though neither are really accurate. “This is where metaphors slip,” explained Whittaker. “Neither of those things are how what they’re describing actually works.”
Burrington and Whittaker poked fun at this condition by inventing a new metaphorical language of their own. One of several anecdotes of Internet history that they chose to recount through their fictional cosmology was the transition of system-wide protocols, from the older de facto standard of networking communication, IPv4, to the new one, IPv6, foreshadowed since the eighties and adopted widely in the past several years. It’s actually easiest to understand in the wizard terms Whittaker used to explain:
To participate in the realm of rough telepathy everyone needs a unique rune (an IP address). Guilds exist to allocate these unique runes and specific orders watch over distribution and establish protocols. Initially, everyone participating in the realm of rough telepathy was using unique runes of the fourth order, but eventually due to the rapid growth of participation in the realm, a shortage of runes developed. The solution was creating way more unique runes, but the challenge was to switch over from using unique runes of the fourth order to unique runes of the sixth order. “It’s going about as well as you might expect,” said Whittaker, during the presentation, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
When Whittaker talked about IP address protocol this way, my eyes didn’t glaze over like they do when I read technical articles full of acronyms. “It even made me more interested in Internet Protocol,” admitted Whittaker, a note of surprise in her voice, “and this is coming from someone who is genuinely interested in it!” She added that using the terms of fantasy was a way “to have a larger conversation about stakes and not necessarily just about mechanisms.”
With a wink and a nod, Whittaker and Burrington framed their entire presentation as early scholarship on a dusty tomb they’d dug up at the library, detailing the realm of rough telepathy and including diagrams of sigils, like ones corresponding to “the unique rune of the fourth order” and “the unique rune of the sixth order.” The pair designed these original sigils, basing the fictional emblems off of real elements like the binaries and hexadecimals of actual IP addresses. Burrington explains they were inspired by the similarity between the flat circular planes of late medieval maps and contemporary Department of Defense diagrams. She is fascinated by the fantastical nature of the latter. “There’s a flat plane and a totally nonrealistic drawing of the earth, and satellites hovering over it. And here’s a drone, and it’s the same size as the satellite,” she said. “They are like these weird Mappa Mundi of the universe as understood from the point of view of the technocratic military state.”
While you or I might log online every day and have no idea about IPv4 and IPv6, some people’s whole worlds revolve around it. Whether they work for Verizon, Comcast, ICANN, the private non-profit that controls the registry of IP addresses, or are independent enthusiasts, there are many individuals who are ardent for the drudgery of specific infrastructure challenges. Whittaker and Burrington told me there are people who wear T-shirts that say “IPv6 is the New Black,” and to them it’s bizarre you or I wouldn’t know what that means. “A lot of people who work on these low-level protocols have a real passion for it. A lot of people do this for a sense of community,” Whittaker said. Underneath the surface that users see, she continued, “There is a whole teeming ecosystem of people doing things on a very personal level, which is the basis of a lot of the technology launched by big companies or inventors. These kinds of overages of human social feeling that don’t fit within transactional capitalism are harvested by the tech industry.”
Yet the pair cautioned against drawing hard and fast conclusion about good and evil in the fairytale-telling of the internet. “It’s not easy heroes and villains,” Burrington said. “Just competing interests.” While Whittaker and Burrington’s presentation highlighted the complex superstructures, such as the governmental and commercial interests that have driven the Internet’s development, they also found that creating this cosmology made them realize it’s a human story, far more complicated than just warring kingdoms and mercantile classes.
Whittaker is co-chairing a free symposium about artificial intelligence, AI Now, presented by the White House and New York University, July 7, and Burrington’s field guide on Internet infrastructure, Networks of New York (Melville House), is forthcoming in August. You can read more about the realm of rough telepathy at grimoire.computer.