An essay by Domenico Quaranta
about the piece Keepalive
recently published on mefsite.wordpress.com
– MEDIA IN THE EXPANDED FIELD, A collaborative platform for the participants in the think tank ‚Media in the Expanded Field‘, curated by Montabonel & Partners.
DOMENICO QUARANTA: Oh, When the Internet Breaks at Some Point
“Walked out this morning / Don’t believe what I saw / A hundred billion bottles / Washed up on the shore / Seems I’m not alone at being alone / A hundred billion castaways / Looking for a home” The Police, “Message in a Bottle”, 1979
Back in October 2010, German artist Aram Bartholl cemented 5 USB flash drives in various locations in New York, as part of an Eyebeam residency.  Referring to the way, in espionage, items are passed between two individuals using a secret location and without an actual meeting, he called the project Dead Drops. The first five dead drops were empty, except for a small readme file explaining the project. A dedicated website was set up, featuring a video tutorial and a simple “how to” and inviting people to participate in the project.
In interviews, Bartholl explained that at the beginning he was just fascinated by the power of an image: a small data container plugged in the wall, in public space, and a person trying to access it with her own device. He invited people to participate by dropping files in and taking files out, installing their own dead drop and sending the GPS coordinates to Bartholl. As in many collaborative projects, he wasn’t particularly confident about people’s participation, and he believed that the project was conceptually strong enough even in the shape of a small, five-nodes network. But people liked the idea, and as I’m typing on my keyboard today, the online database features almost 1500 registered dead drops for a total storage space of 9891 gigabytes. I installed my own a while ago and I’ve noticed some others along the years, and I’ve always been fascinated by the precariousness of these tiny, rusty artifacts. I’ve never seen anybody plugging in, and probably most of them are almost empty, or out of work. But they are, still, extremely powerful as an image.
Message in a Bottle
“A Dead Drop is a naked piece of passively powered Universal Serial Bus technology embedded into the city, the only true public space. In an era of growing clouds and fancy new devices without access to local files we need to rethink the freedom and distribution of data. The Dead Drops movement is on its way for change! Free your data to the public domain in cement! Make your own Dead Drop now! Un-cloud your files today!!!” Aram Bartholl, “The Dead Drops Manifesto”, 2010 
The dead drops network emerged in an age that saw a major shift in the general perception of the internet as a public space. Widespread Wi-Fi access, the massive adoption of social networking sites, and the advent of smartphones made people start to think about the internet as a new public space, with no physical boundaries and infrastructure, where data can be shared and taken easily and seamlessly. The metaphor of the cloud, already used in the Nineties to describe the internet, became more and more popular in the late 2000s, when cloud computing emerged – further reinforcing the idea of an immaterial public space and eroding the difference between public and private, local and shared. As Annet Dekker wrote in 2008:
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