Connecting to the Internet used to be a conscious act: it required making a phone call through a modem, waiting while the machine emitted its peculiar screeching sounds and finally gaining access to a remote server. Considering this laborious protocol, it made sense to describe the Web as a “cyberspace”, a virtual environment clearly separated from real life. Nowadays, being connected to the Internet is no longer an option  and instead of a clear distinction between online and offline, we manage different states of interaction with our online presence. According to Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker, “all the official discourses of the Web demand that one is either online and accounted for, or offline and still accounted for” . Obviously, it is possible to turn off the router, put devices in flight mode, log off or erase one’s profiles on social networks, never use a web browser again. Many people live on this planet without ever connecting to the Internet. But for those who do, there is no clear way of managing one’s connectedness, as our devices are constantly exchanging data and we can hardly keep track of the digital traces we leave behind. Furthermore, as stressed by Galloway and Thacker, this state of permanent connection implies that we are always available, ready to interact with other users, and by doing so, willing to generate more content and provide more data to social networks and online platforms.
Spanish artists Román Torre and Ángeles Angulo reflect on the implications of our use of network connections in their latest project: THERO (2016) , a device conceived as a sculpture, a router, an open source software, and a 3D printable object. It consists of a Raspberry Pi3 computer that handles a user’s Internet connection, placed inside a casing in the shape of a truncated cuboctahedron. Desktop computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones can be connected to it through the ports on one of its facets, or through its own wireless network. THERO features a movable piece that acts as a switch, allowing the user to choose between four levels of connectivity by rotating it. These levels are described by the artists as follows:
0. Access Point with some security options (alerts when new devices are connected).
1. Access Point as Tor Relay (encrypted traffic).
2. Access Point without social distractions (social websites are blocked).
3. Blackout (only local navigation is allowed).
The user can therefore choose at any time how they want to connect to the network, each mode determining different forms of data exchange and varying levels of privacy. In this manner, it provides a far greater control than most routers, but more importantly, it leads the user to think about the fact that browsing the Web is never merely about obtaining information, but also providing it. Deciding whether or not to give and obtain access is a conscious act, reinforced by the need to manipulate a physical object. The shape and physicality of the object are key elements of THERO, as it counters the tendency to make computers invisible , and consequently, conceal network connections. Sitting on the desk, this mysterious sculpture (that the artists describe as a talisman) constantly reminds the user of the existence of a flow of data between their computer and many remote servers, as well as the possibility to determine how this flow should be or if there should be no connection at all. In this sense, it is a useful device but also a cultural object, whose very presence invites both reflection and action. Other artworks that address connectivity contribute to illustrate the ideas behind THERO: one the one hand, Carnivore (2000)  by the artists collective Radical Software Group, introduced the idea of creating artworks by performing surveillance on data networks and therefore reflecting on their hidden activity and raising issues about privacy; on the other hand, L’Enclave (2013)  by Grégory Chatonsky is conceived as a networked sculpture that displays the data sent from a computer in an abstract form and plays with the presence of a mysterious object that reveals private information in a way that is unreadable to humans. In line with these artworks, THERO continues the discussion on our inability to control, or even understand, the implications of our connectedness. But, more interestingly, it has also been perceived as a commercial product.
Torre and Angulo developed THERO with a research grant from LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial (Gijón, Spain) and Telefónica I+D between July and November, 2016. They posted copious documentation about their idea and every step of the project and were able to present a prototype in early 2017, at the Data Transparency Conference in New York. It caught the attention of specialized media such as Creative Applications or FastCo Design a few months later. However, THERO has made its appearance in the midst of a growing trend of routers that claim to protect the user’s privacy, such as Gryphon  and Flter  (both launched on Kickstarter in December 2016 and March 2017, respectively) or the strikingly similar Core Router by Norton  (available on pre-order). In this context, the Spanish artists’ project has been reviewed as a privacy tool instead of an artwork, a confusion that speaks of its actual usefulness but also of the tendency to disregard the cultural relevance of technology. In the following conversation, I asked the artists about the issues raised by their artwork and its hybrid nature as a sculpture and a convenience.
Question. What is the purpose of THERO in the context of our constant, seamless and almost unconscious connectivity?
Answer. Almost from the first concept of the piece, we had the clear intention of giving shape to a series of reflections on the fact that the Internet is no longer a separate entity to which we choose to connect, and that we have merged with it to the point of giving away some of our cognitive abilities in the hope of enhancing others. In this context, THERO aims at embodying all these doubts and issues, in search of a more conscious and controlled use of the network. We think that being online should not be considered unavoidable, and realize that it does depend on our continued effort to browse, post, share and like. Our online presence is relative. We resist the generally accepted idea that there is no going back, and furthermore stress that to fully accept the inevitability of the network leads to surrendering the right to decide at all times about our online presence and the traces we leave behind. In this sense, the value of THERO as a connected object in the context of an artistic project is to lead viewers to reflect on to what extent being connected is really inevitable. What goes on inside the computer when we are online is mainly invisible to us, and therefore it is important to provide a tool that is at once useful and visible: an object placed on the desk, next to the computer, that we can manipulate at any time.
Q. THERO is, in fact, a very peculiar object. How did you work on its shape and materials?
A. It was clear to us from the beginning that the object had to incorporate certain physical and aesthetic properties that gave it a mysterious presence. The object had to be like a talisman, somewhat magic but also related to the myths about the machine that have been popularized by science-fiction stories. It also had to transmit the ideas related to the issues of privacy and data exchange, for instance the volume of data could be translated into the weight of the object, as the geometric shape referred to the perception of the network as an abstract, ideal space. The concrete prototype is a good example of this, as it looks heavy and it is also closer to a sculpture than a consumer product. We never wanted to hide the origin and nature of the project as directly related to digital devices and networks, and for this reason the object relates to geometry and mathematics. While working with different materials, we decided to stick to fabrication processes that could be carried out with a 3D printer or a laser cutter, since these tools allow to create prototypes that are close enough to an industrial-level product and can be reproduced by others, in order to keep the project 100% open source. In contrast with the digitally produced elements of the piece, we also wanted to include a more organic feel with textures that relate to natural environments. For this reason we decided to work on two prototypes, one that could be easily reproduced and another one that would be conceived as a sculpture. Developing the process of a concrete encasing took most of our time and therefore we ended up using that material for the sculptural version of the piece.
Q. Another important aspect of the piece is the fact that is must be operated manually.
A. The idea of configuring THERO as a mediator that would centralize all data and connections meant removing any other interface, device or app that could leak data and also make the whole process more complex by requiring external connections. Paradoxically, reducing the interface to a movable piece of the object is not really user-friendly nor very smooth, but we think that it is positive that the interaction is not so rewarding. The current trends in UX design are partly responsible for many of the problems related to how we perceive and act on our environment: the ease of use and minimal effort required to operate most devices lead to looking for similarly effortless interactions with other objects, spaces and even people.
Q. While THERO protects the user’s privacy from outsiders, it can also become a surveillance tool in itself.
A. Yes, that is quite problematic. If we reduce the options of interaction and connection to keep control of our information and data, it is logical to think that the device acts as a faucet and controls the data that runs through it. How to solve the trust in this machine? By means of Open Source logic, offering users all the documentation, data and code in order to allow them to hold the technology to scrutiny. This also allows developers to use THERO as a platform for creating their own solutions. In this sense, it is crucial to use hardware and software that is widely used in the community of developers, such as Raspberry Pi mini computers with Linux OS and encrypting software made by the community of developers of the TOR network.
Q. Have you considered developing THERO as a platform for artistic projects, similarly to RSG’s Carnivore?
A. Yes, that would be a great idea. However, beyond developing THERO as a prototype, currently we don’t think we may be able to continue evolving the project full-time, given that we lack funding and have received several proposals for exhibiting the piece. What we are currently doing is working with the HYPERLINK “http://Guifi.net/”Guifi.net community in order to have the software compatible to their network and be able to use THERO as a mesh device that allows to create local networks. We have always thought that the object could be the base for other types of artworks and in fact it can also be used to generate visual feedback. So there are still many ways to develop this project.
Q. THERO has been reviewed in specialized media as a consumer product instead of an artwork. What do you think about this?
A. We accept this as a natural outcome of the project and in fact we would love to see art objects become devices for daily use, if they retain the concept that made them interesting as artworks. For this, there needs to be more risk and creative freedom in the industry, where it seems that fulfilling the perceived or dictated needs of the user is the main goal. It is however disappointing that in some blogs the project has been read with such banality. For us, THERO is a project that has lead us to reflect and imagine other futures, other materials and other ways of developing projects in close connection to the consumer product. For us it was important that, beside the concept, the device could work, but it was not meant to be a commercial product since it has been developed in an artistic context.
We have thought about developing a commercial version, but it would always be guided by a Open Source approach. However, we are not keen on launching a Kickstarter campaign and getting involved in all the promotion of the project. You need time and dedication to focus on the production of such a product and currently we do not consider heading in this direction. Actually, we think that we have inspired some of the routers being developed lately, such as the Norton Core Router, which was launched shortly after THERO by people who knew about the project when it was presented in New York and shares most of its main ideas and its visual appearance.
Art critic, curator and researcher. PhD in Information and Knowledge Society, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), Lecturer in Arts and Humanities at UOC. His recent curatorial projects include the exhibitions All Changes Saved, Real Time, Remote Signals, and Extimacy. Art, intimacy and technology. He has published articles and essays in contemporary art magazines and peer-reviewed journals. He is currently the editor of Media Art at art.es magazine, editor and writer at Art Matters and Design Matters (UOC).
 Hito Steyerl (2015). Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?, in: Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, Anton Vidokle, (eds.). The Internet Does Not Exist. Berlin: Sternberg Press, p.11.
 Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker (2007). The Exploit. A Theory of Networks. Minneapolis–London: University of Minnesota Press, p.126.
 Thero. Roman Torre. Retrieved from: https://www.romantorre.net/portfolio-item/thero/
 Olia Lialina (2012, October). Turing Complete User. Contemporary Home Computing. Retrieved from: http://contemporary-home-computing.org/turing-complete-user/
 Carnivore. Radical Software Group. Retrieved from: http://r-s-g.org/carnivore/
 L’Enclave. Gregory Chatonsky. Retrieved from: http://chatonsky.net/enclave/
 Gryphon: Smart WiFi Router to Protect the Connected Family. Kickstarter. Retrieved from: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/gryphonconnect/gryphon-simple-safe-super-fast-wifi-for-modern-fam
 Flter: Privacy & Security Router. Kickstarter. Retrieved from: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/flter/flter-privacy-and-security-router
 Norton Core Router. Symantec Corporation. Retrieved from: https://us.norton.com/core