PRINT Summer 2002


Jon Ippolito

The Internet has yet to deliver on the electronic republic pundits promised in the ’90s. Indeed, Al Gore’s “Athenian Age” of enhanced democracy was a lot shorter-lived than the orlglnal, if It drew breath at all, and with the election fiascoes and terrorist attacks of the past two years, the Bush administration has easily drowned out pleas for online town meetings and voting, clamoring instead for roving wiretaps and encryption controls. All of which turns the clock back a decade, to a time when the task of exploring new forms of electronic democracy fell to activists and artists. The creators of the following sites may wield fancier tools, but their spirit echoes the days when the Internet was freedom's new frontier.

Refugee Republic

This project by Ingo Gunther proposes a nongeographic nation composed of the world’s refugees. Arguing that the stateless population represents a “comprehensive spectrum of cultures, civilizations, and religions,” Gunther expands on the model of online collectives such as Nova Roma (which unites “spiritual successors to the Roman Empire”) to create a homeland for people who currently don’t have one. Aside from the downloadable passport cover, the site is less a practical experiment than a conceptual gesture aimed at raising consciousness about the plight of refugees. Though Gunther’s project may be satiric, it nonetheless points to the increasing relevance of transnational entities in a globalized economy.


No nation, online or off, would be complete without a flag, and someone has finally created one for the Internet. Net.flag, 2002–, by veteran online artist Mark Napier, is an emblem for a new kind of “territory.” Its design changes constantly, manipulated by users who make selections from familiar motifs: stars, color fields, patterns, and insignia. As Net.flag’s viewers add their contributions, one country’s motifs temporarily overlap another’s. Since a flag’s elements generally act as symbols, Net.flag also includes a “browse history” feature that shows the evolution of its aggregate symbolic value—the percentage of signs indicating “purity,” “peace,” “blood,” and so on present in the flag at a given moment. Why pine for an isolated sovereignty untenable in a world connected by copper wires and international terrorism? Wave your Net.flag with pride.


Based on FBI wiretapping software of the same name, Radical Software Group’s Carnivore uses “packet-sniffing”—a technology that eavesdrops on telecommunications—to create vivid depictions of raw data. Carnivore, winner of this year’s Ars Electronica Golden Nica award for Net Vision, consists of two parts: the box that ties into a local area network and serves the resulting data stream via the Internet; and artist-made interfaces that tap into this stream. So far, Carnivore has been let loose only in fenced-in pastures—participating galleries, for example—but with a new downloadable version, CarnivorePE, RSG’s project of demystifying FBI technology can now reach the masses. To date, a handful of cofounder Alex Galloway's fellow artists, among them Joshua Davis, Scott Snibbe, and Entropy8Zuper! Have contributed; their interfaces interpret data variously as billowing circles, expanding supernovas, and a Virtual Reality Modeling Language update on Monopoly.

Metamute Meets Echelon

Echelon, the worldwide intelligence network run by the United States and its English-speaking allies, automatically monitors phone calls, faxes, and e-mails by comparing them against a list of suspicious keywords like mailbomb and rebels. To raise awareness of government surveillance, hacker-activists previously tried to flood e-mail systems with messages containing these words-but Echelon is purportedly too smart to be fooled by words out of context. In response, Mute magazine invited authors to craft literary works that employ the maximum number of keywords. The winners, archived in the magazine's site, Metamute (, may not merit a Pulitzer, but they do show that Tom Clancy doesn't have a lock on spook-inspired literature.

Jon Ippolito is an artist and associate curator of media arts at the Guggenheim Museum. His collaboration Fair e-Tales can be found at The Edge of Art, a book on creativity and the Internet revolution, is forthcoming from Thames & Hudson.