Roopa Vasudevan

We’ve been here before.

Over the last several years—and, in particular, as buzzwords like Web3, the Metaverse, and the Semantic Web have gained traction within the popular imagination—we’ve been hearing and speculating a lot about the next iteration of the Web. Myriad possibilities and avenues have been proposed and championed, all of which promise to change things, to help us build community, to center people more, and to take power away from those who hoard and exploit it. The hype around these systems makes the idea of the “next” Internet seem fresh, exciting, and novel. There is optimism in finding new territory, a new way of thinking—one that has, ostensibly, not been corrupted by surveillance capitalism and advertising-driven business models.

In 2017, the HBO series Silicon Valley prophesied these conversations, when a major plot arc begun in the fourth season rested on the idea of a totally decentralized Internet—and the freedom that it would bring to its users. Championing “the Internet that we deserve”, the series’ central startup positioned itself as a radical departure from the monopolies that control the current version of the Web. The project was often framed, in the show, as a “new Internet”—implying a complete reset, a way of thinking about online space that completely deviates from what we already know. And, perhaps in a case of life imitating art, decentralization has now become a buzzword for artists and startups alike when thinking about what the next version of the Web might look like.

This rhetoric isn’t new—and, in fact, feels a little bit like déjà vu. Language of freedom, openness, and peer-to-peer engagement has permeated the cultural imaginary of the Internet since the very beginning.

It’s an exciting thought on the surface: wresting power away from large, central gatekeepers offers space for the rest of us to grow and thrive online, dealing with each other directly and relying less on billionaires and CEOs to decide what we can and cannot do in virtual space. But the thing is, this rhetoric isn’t new—and, in fact, feels a little bit like déjà vu. Language of freedom, openness, and peer-to-peer engagement has permeated the cultural imaginary of the Internet since the very beginning. The Internet itself, when it first became accessible to the public, was hailed as way to distribute power in what was then an extremely centralized media ecosystem. Social media companies promised to connect us to each other, one to one, in ways that were previously impossible. And even the development of cryptocurrency aimed to put financial power back in the hands of the people, without relying on institutions like banks or the state. Each of these began as ways to shift paradigms; to create virtual spaces and places that bucked the hard and fast rules of material society; to cut out the powerful and bureaucratic middleman; or to give opportunities to people that may not exist for them in the physical world.

And in many cases, they did what they said they would. The Internet has completely redefined the way that we exist in the world. But we’ve also seen how it has moved over time from a town square to a walled garden—only accessible for a price, whether that's money, your personal data, or both. We’ve seen how it has replicated (and, as scholars like Safiya Noble, Ruha Benjamin, and Virginia Eubanks argue, maybe made worse) the economic, social, and cultural hierarchies of late capitalism in its models. It doesn’t seem right to jump headfirst into new visions for the Internet before intentionally and holistically looking back—both at what has gone wrong before, and the lessons we've learned as a result. If we don’t understand where we can do things differently, we will just be doomed to replicate the past.

As an artist who uses and centers technology in her work, I have long been questioning and chafing against what I have increasingly come to see as the unacknowledged control and influence that Big Tech, and the mainstream tech industry at large, has on the material tools, resources, ideologies, and creative affordances that shape my practice. For a long time, I thought that these concerns were just something I had to deal with on my own—discomfort that I needed to get over if I wanted to continue to make and show work in this space. But eventually, I realized that these feelings were widespread among my community; we just weren’t talking about it publicly. Sure, there were scattered panels and think pieces about what it means to be complicit with Big Tech—which often advocated removing yourself from the systems entirely, a near impossibility in today’s media landscape—but most people weren’t openly discussing the ties we feel to the industry in all aspects of our practices: from daily workflows, to funding and resources, to even the ways we think about ourselves and our work in the broader cultural landscape.

I have also come to realize that artists have always been seen as responsible for envisioning the future, especially when it comes to new technology. As part of my long-term research into the relationships between new media artists and the tech industry—which is directly informed by my own experiences and the experiences of my peers and colleagues—I argue that our role as prognosticators, as fortune tellers of new technological directions, is seen by the industry as critical to the development of digital systems, even as we picture ourselves as existing outside of these structures. For that reason, it becomes incredibly important to ask artists about their relationships with power: where they feel discomfort with current practices, and what they would change if they could.

Artists have always been seen as responsible for envisioning the future, especially when it comes to new technology.

And so, in the summer of 2020, amid the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and worldwide uprisings for racial justice, I began leading a series of virtual workshops with fellow new media artists as part of the Rapid Response for a Better Digital Future fellowship at Eyebeam, a renowned art and technology space based in New York City. Stemming from a profound personal discomfort with the ways that digital artists are primed to respond to surveillance and tech inequality in a siloed, individualistic manner, the workshops were designed to bring together practitioners in small groups to stimulate conversation about the promises and pitfalls of what is often called “creative resistance”: the use of art to subvert, refuse or push back against oppressive or ethically suspect structures.

The format combines personal free-writing exercises in response to seven prompts; intimate group discussion; and collective artmaking through the collaborative drafting of “manifestos for creative resistance”, structured around the workshop prompts, which outline who we as practitioners are, what we see happening in the field, and commitments we want to make in our practices going forward. The workshops were able to spark a process of values alignment among participants, and pointed to a dire need for collective conversation about shared goals, common decision-making processes, and mutually felt trepidation or anxiety related to relationships with industry and power.

To date, over 70 tech-engaged artists and/or practitioners have participated in one of these sessions. I have expanded the project into the Strategic Transparency Network: a group of practitioners who align to core values of self-reflexivity and criticality when it comes to personal and creative engagement with technology. Strategic transparency refers to a philosophy of selective and intentional legibility to the demands of digital systems and corporate technology, which is first and foremost reliant on a thorough and honest understanding of our connections to power. As scholars like Donna Haraway and Patricia Hill Collins argue, we cannot find our way out of a system until we know exactly where we are inside of it; by understanding where and how artists are seen to operate within digital spaces, we can take advantage of these assumptions and make demands for what we actually want to see occur.

This publication showcases the collective knowledge developed through this workshop process. In addition to the manifestos generated to date, it features new contributions by nine former participants, who are responding to the explosive hype around decentralization, virtual space, and new models for the Internet and technology. The volume opens and closes with a pair of essays that I imagine as mirror images, bookending the work. Sarah Dahnke’s opening “Movement Score for Artists Who Do Not Have Day Jobs” offers a frank and critical view of the state of the field today—and the dismissal often shown towards artists and their practical and material needs, while they are simultaneously depended upon for inspiration and innovation. And Lil Miss Hot Mess’ “An Internet Like a Drag Show” closes things out on a hopeful note by imagining what online space would look like if we centered the practices and connection of the drag community: a way of looking at the world that embraces messiness and contradiction, while lifting each other up and celebrating each and every idiosyncrasy. Both essays explore the idea of creatives in a tech-based space—one assessing the current status of artists within these systems, with the other offering a reimagination of what might be possible if that status were to shift and change.

Some of the artists respond to ideas of community, and the ways in which they have been warped by social media platforms. Christina Freeman’s “Internet of the Commons” examines the ways in which the online use of “community” falls drastically short of the word’s definition and implications in real life. Using her experiences with Facebook as a starting point, Freeman points to the co-option and degradation of the term on big platforms, offering a more intimate, smaller scale view of what meaningful community would actually look like. In a similar vein, Shawn Escarciga reflects on what the Internet has afforded queer communities—and where it is falling short of supporting those who depend on and contribute to it. Escarciga’s essay “IMHO: On Internet, Art, Internet Art, and Queer Censorship” examines the relationship between queer artmaking online and the wave of censorship that often silences, hides, and outright bans it from view. Almost as a flipside to Escarciga’s coin, Jasmine A. Golphin discusses the affordances of the Internet in her essay “Black Women (Unintentionally) in Tech”. Writing, in part, about her personal experiences in majority non-Black media spaces, Golphin argues that the unprecedented access to knowledge offered by the Internet suggests exciting models for democratization and sharing of information within cultural communities.

Made all the more urgent by the new wave of anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation advanced in state houses across the USA in late 2022 and early 2023.

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Other artists examine the analogies that we often carry with us into digital space, and suggest that rethinking them might offer insight into how things might change for the better. Artist duo Caitlin Foley and Misha Rabinovich debut a new iteration of their Shareable Biome project—entitled “Shrine to Fallen Microbes”—which offers a comparison between our online ecosystem and the human microbiome. Both are spaces where diversity—of type and of thought—is essential; both are rapidly destroyed by homogeneity and mistrust of difference. And in her piece “Home in the Metaverse”, designer and extended reality researcher Lydia Jessup takes a deep dive into the relationship between domesticity and computing, probing the concept of the “living room” as it exists in a variety of virtual spaces and asking what “home” actually means (and could mean) in these contexts.

What would happen if we actually centered artists, on their own terms, when we build technical systems? How would that offer new ways of thinking about the potentials of emerging technology, rather than just reinforcing the models that already exist?

Tega Brain’s “Resistance as Redistributing Agency” examines online platforms and artificial intelligence as they relate to ecology and the climate crisis, looking at some of her past artworks that probe at these themes. She offers the idea of “eccentric engineering” as a creative model for reclaiming agency in digital systems and spaces: reconfiguring notions of who gets to act, and for what ends. Brain’s essay, in many ways, serves as an articulation of much of the thinking around this project: what would happen if we actually centered artists, on their own terms, when we build technical systems? How would that offer new ways of thinking about the potentials of emerging technology, rather than just reinforcing the models that already exist?

It is my belief that coming together in solidarity can help artists envision and build these new models for digital space and systems that truly reflect our values and ethics—rather than, as often happens in current structures, using our voices and creativity to perpetuate cycles of harm. Through this work, I aim to provide space for connection, care and agency in digital art practices, and an avenue for building better systems that truly reflect our ideals and visions. My hope is that, just maybe, by reflecting on the current state of the Web, we can avoid repeating the same mistakes that have brought us to this point in the first place.

Roopa Vasudevan is a South Asian-American media artist, computer programmer and researcher, currently based in Philadelphia. Roopa’s practice examines social and technological defaults; interrogates rules, conventions and protocols that we often ignore or take for granted; and centers humanity and community in explorations of technology’s impacts on society. Her work has been exhibited internationally, and supported by Eyebeam (Brooklyn, NY); the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy (Philadelphia, PA); the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation (Philadelphia, PA); the Philadelphia Area Creative Collaboratives (Haverford, PA); SOHO20 Gallery (Brooklyn, NY); the Arctic Circle Residency (Svalbard); China Residencies; SPACES (Cleveland, OH); and Flux Factory (Queens, NY). Roopa is currently a member artist at Vox Populi, a 30+ year old collectively run arts space in Philadelphia; a member of the Art & Code track at NEW INC, the art and technology incubator at the New Museum (New York, NY); and a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is researching the complex and involved relationships between new media artists and the tech industry. More at and @rouxpz.