' Digital Serfs '
Tracing a line from present to the past, Kat Zavada, reviles the uncanny resemblance to the feudal times of old. We the lowly digital serfs look out upon a world of tech giants, corporate partners and complex powers… Is this not the future we imagined?
Upon the top of every feudal hierarchy sits those individuals with absolute power over their domain. The kings of bygone times ruled their dominions and claimed ownership of all that is generated upon their lands. Possessing the rights to exile, charge and tax, these feudal lords felt power beyond all else… Does this not feel familiar? Perhaps these archaic notions strike a chord with a contemporary power structure that permeates our daily lives: The platform owners of our social-digital spaces have become the kings of our neo-feudalistic cyber spaces.
To say that these digital monarchs are above the rule of law or the governance of states would once have been a point of ridicule. Now that viewpoint holds some significant weight. With allegations of Facebook acting as a vessel to sway elections, YouTube and its proliferation of far-right conspiracy theories, and rampant accusations of exploitation of employees across all corners of the tech industry, the sense that these conglomerates' power feels to parallel – if not outweigh – that of a nation state is getting harder to ignore.
It is a tired expression to say that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” yet it still too often holds true. Perhaps none more so than in the case of the death of the QuadrigaCX CEO, Gerald Cotten. Forming a cryptocurrency exchange, Cotton promised access to the hot-button world of blockchain – in reality a Ponzi scheme was what was all that he offered. As investments flooded in as did allegations and eventually threats of legal actions. As the guillotine of federal investigation loomed large Cotton was reported to have died in India. With his death came the loss of all access to the $190,000,000 QuadrigaCX users digital wallets. With suspicions swirling, missing millions and a dubious death, conspiracies formed.
Working with artist Letta Shtohryn, Zavada took focus on the methodology of conspiracy in the digital age. Taking the premise of Gerald Cotton’s death, a framework of investigation was devised and the digital exhibition Before They Delete This was produced. Upon our visit to the site we are presented with layers of media, screenshots from forums, CGI models and lurid colours – a certain nostalgia for the Geo-Cities of the Dotcom boom era of the early internet cannot be ignored. The visual effect is often overwhelming; contravening information overlaps, gifs blink and flash like shivering neon-lights. This complexity lies at the core of the multi-layered nature that conspiracy thrives upon, no answer is ever made clear but is forever, just slightly obscured.