Nominated by Owen Earl
When I first stumbled upon F.A.T. Labs, I was honestly terrified. I was reading about Dead Drops, a project where flash drives are inserted into walls of public spaces for anyone to put whatever they want onto. There’s no way of knowing what will be on the flash drive when you connect your laptop to one, and there’s no accountability if what you find is disturbing. It could be a virus or child porn. I was somewhere around age 14.
I started to read more about the work they were doing and my concern grew. They were posting pictures of naked people and encouraging people to put vibrators up their butt. They were explaining how to provoke the FBI and giving instructions on how to graffiti or make guns or commit blackmail. They lied a lot, too. They pretended to be a Google car on more than one occasion. They impersonated MoMA and lied about deleting people’s Facebook accounts. They also had some weird obsession with Kanye West.
They broke a lot of boundaries for me that made me uncomfortable. People, myself included, want to feel safe on the internet, and many of their projects made me feel unsafe. I didn’t like the idea of the FBI having a file on me, or not being able to trust that what I was reading was real, or fear losing my digital social media in the click of a button. But something about what they were doing I found thrilling, exciting. I wanted to be a part of it, and I kept coming back.
The internet, in a way, is the wild, wild west. We forget about this most of the time because we use the internet so often, but when you take a step back, it’s total anarchy. People are buying and distributing illegal goods. People are selling modern day snake oil and disappearing without a trace. People can and will steal your identity, spread fake news and propaganda, hold your computer and all of its data hostage until you pay up. And anyone can do whatever they want online. There’s almost no cost to enter, and there’s almost complete anonymity.
Whether we like it or not, the internet is an unruly new frontier, one that we all have the ability to shape. There are no rules so in a way we get to forge our own.
What F.A.T. Labs understood is that if we don’t write the rules that we want the internet to operate by, other people will write them for us, people who don’t really have our best interests in mind. F.A.T. Labs was making me feel unsafe because they were reminding me that I was unsafe. They were pointing out all the ways I am already unsafe online, and I didn’t want to be reminded of this.
In the example of Social Roulette they created a fake Facebook game that claimed it had a one in six chance of deleting your entire Facebook profile. Russian Roulette, but for your digital self. I don’t want to think about how easily I could lose my entire Facebook, but the truth is Facebook already has the authority to delete my entire profile without so much as a warning. Unlike in Social Roulette, I wouldn’t be the one pulling the trigger, and if/when Facebook decides I no longer have the right to speak, who am I going to tell?
F.A.T. Labs lied, and cheated, and provoked, but it was always companies or governments that got the short end of the stick, not human people. They talked about the people and things that we’re uncomfortable talking about because doing so forces us to ask, who as a society are we silencing? Whose existence are we uncomfortable even acknowledging? Who are we handing the power of our digital lives over to, and what are the values of those institutions?
More than anything, F.A.T. Labs was fun. Their projects were goofy, like that time they tied a USB stick to a dog, or explained how to make your computer’s font comic sans, or created a browser plugin to censor Justin Bieber. They celebrated projects that were short to execute, and were rough around the edges. They also taught everyone how to empower themselves in the digital age. You could be the one that has control over what content you see online, not just the other way around. You can modify and change the technological tools, not just change on behalf of your computer. The world is open to play, and there’s nothing stopping you from joining in, hijacking the media that’s being shoved down your throat and making it your own.
If you go to the F.A.T. Labs site now you will see that they are no longer active. They shut down because in their eyes, the internet is no longer free. We lost the fight against mass surveillance and consolidation of power and control. That was in 2015 when they shut their doors, before the Cambridge Analytica scandal or other things of that nature. I guess they knew something many of us hadn’t yet figured out.
To F.A.T. Labs I say, so long partner. You were a good cowboy. You fought the good fight. There will never be another Cowboy exactly like you, but your spirit lives on inside my heart and the heart of all the cowboys who fought along with you. You are missed, and we will continue fighting in your honor.
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