Breaking the black box

Berlin as a city is certainly open, but how about open source? We profiled four open source near-exemplars. In his Neukölln techno-lair, Julian Oliver builds gadgets that shake us from the complacency of cyberspace.

Image for Breaking the black box
Photo by Tania Castellví

“Step into my cave,” Julian Oliver jokes, referring to his intimidating work space on Weisestraße. This cold, dimly lit room with cement flooring, decorated only by bizarre technological contraptions, is the lair of the 38-year-old media artist.

Oliver came to the cyber-cauldron of Berlin from an antipodean forest farm. He remembers his native New Zealand as an independent country where “people learn to do a lot with a little.” Little did he know that fooling around with gadgets and machines during his early years would lead to Oliver and his partner Danja Vasiliev winning the 2011 Golden Nica award – “Pretty much the Oscars in my world!” – for Newstweek, an innocuous wall plug that can alter the news read by other people at a wireless hotspot.

It’s here in his Neukölln tinkering hole that Oliver also built his latest brainchild, the Transparency Grenade, a device that can leak all the network activity in its surrounding area to a linked server. This piece is currently on display in Amsterdam at the Transnatural Festival. Oliver nonchalantly describes it as a “hand-held solution to the problem of a lack of transparency… a tangible, functioning cyberweapon in the form of a traditional weapon.”

Oliver’s interests lie in the vast area of technopolitics, whereby “the way in which the reach of technology in our lives is forming the decisions that we are making, and the way that we move, communicate and even think.” He holds worldwide workshops and classes on many topics, such as computer networking, software art, hacking and game development.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, Oliver is an artist with an agenda. “I like to know what’s going on. I don’t like to look into a network and see that there’s a place I can’t go unless there’s a very good reason for it.” He admits that he has “an anti-authoritarian streak” in him. “I’m interested in taking a black box, breaking it open, finding a way in and using that as an educational strategy for revealing to the world an infrastructure that we heavily rely on but don’t understand.”

Then came the million-dollar question. “What is the internet?” he demands. An embarrassing silence. “You can ask anyone how the postcard that you sent them arrived in their mailbox and they’ll be able to give you a detailed breakdown of how it works, but you ask anyone how the email you sent them arrived in their inbox and they’ll be reliant on high surrealism.” (Note to self: must Google the internet.)

He seems genuinely baffled as to why people today trust Facebook and Twitter with our most intimate of details when “all this stuff is in a hard disk underground in a data centre surrounded by guns, dirt, tax and shareholders.” Oliver implores the people to “fight back a little bit”: man versus the technology behemoth.

Newstweek stems from the same train of thought. He wants to instil a “healthy paranoia and distrust in our technologically mediated environment” in the public. Whilst mingling with a Berlin technological intellectual like Oliver, one certainly becomes healthily paranoid.

Hold on closely to your smartphone and laptop; Big Brother is indeed watching you. Oliver’s future projects follow a similar path – the transparency grenade converted into an Android app, commissioned projects and something mysterious involving telecommunications on a mass scale. Ultimately Oliver’s aim is to liberate the black box of technology – is this daylight thievery or social emancipation? That is up to the higher powers to decide. Either way, watch this space…