Contact: Aaron Meyers | admeyers [at] usc [dot] edu
Torrent Raiders: Imagining Aesthetics for a Politicized Protocol
Interactive Media Division – University of Southern California
2276 South Figueroa Street
Los Angeles, CA 90007
admeyers [at] usc [dot] edu
Torrent Raiders is a dynamic network visualization of the Bit Torrent protocol that employs idioms and aesthetics of video games to underscore the legal battle being waged by the entertainment industry against its consumers. Players of Torrent Raiders assist in the distributed surveillance of torrent swarms, populating a central database with information collected by the Torrent Raiders software. In the first two sections of this paper, a history of file-sharing and several influential works of data visualization art are discussed to give greater context to design considerations made in the creation of Torrent Raiders. In the final section, the author discusses the experience and design of the Torrent Raiders software.
The groundswell moment for file-sharing came in 1999 with the release of Napster, the first of many P2P (peer-to-peer) file-sharing programs. In previous methods of file-sharing, the files in question were hosted and downloaded from a central server. Napster changed all this by introducing a distributed approach where files are transferred directly between the peers on its network. Napster’s server kept a centralized list of connected peers and the list of files they were sharing, giving way to an enormous searchable database of music. While Napster focused entirely on music files in the mp3 format, a slew of other P2P networks followed, allowing files of all formats to be shared.
Enter the RIAA
Napster’s quickly rising usage garnered it the most attention of the P2P networks, leading to a lawsuit filed by the Recording Industry Association of America in December 1999. Recording artists Metallica and Dr. Dre followed with their own lawsuit in 2000. While the latter case reached an eventual settlement, the RIAA lawsuit resulted in an injunction requiring Napster to shut down its entire network in July 2001. Only several months before in February, Napster had reached its peak usage with more than 26 million users worldwide, with roughly half of that number coming from the United States. Napster’s number dwindled in the face of its imminent demise as users flocked to competing file-sharing networks, but the numbers made it clear that file-sharing was a phenomenon that no lawsuit would easily purge.
The next landmark in the short history of file-sharing came in 2003. Not satisfied with the results of a number of lawsuits against various file-sharing networks, in July of 2003 the RIAA announced a new campaign targeting the file-sharers themselves. By September 2003, the RIAA issued more than 1500 subpoenas to ISP’s demanding the identities of alleged copyright violators. The lawsuits claimed damages based on an estimated worth of $750 per song shared per user. With many of these damages running upwards of $100,000 per case, the majority of the defendants settled out of court for anywhere from $3000 – $11,000.  By October 2005, the RIAA had filed 14,800 lawsuits against individual file-sharers, yet their ceaseless litigation ostensibly did nothing to stem the tide of file-sharing.  According to P2P traffic analysis done by BigChampagne, the number of persistent file-sharers in the United States more than doubled from 3,847,565 to 8,888,436 during the two year period after the RIAA launched its consumer-targeted campaign in July 2003. 
Over the same period, the landscape of P2P was undergoing huge changes. While the first P2P networks kept a centralized index of peers and files, the next crop to show up introduced a more distributed network model. Services like Gnutella and eMule operated on a distributed network of server nodes. This model made the newer networks more difficult to shutdown since there was no one central server being relied on. In the summer of 2002, a new protocol called Bit Torrent appeared and it did things a bit differently and was more decentralized than other previous offerings.
With Bit Torrent, web servers host a .torrent meta-file that contains information pointing to server called a “tracker”. This tracker keeps a list of users corresponding to each .torrent meta-file linked so that the user can obtain a list of other users with which to attempt to connect to. In this way, each .torrent meta-file corresponds to an ad-hoc network of users referred to as “peers”. The network that they collectively form is referred to as a “swarm”. The file or files that the .torrent file points to are broken up into small pieces that are the effective unit of exchange on the swarm. Once a peer has completed a piece, they are eligible to upload it to any other peer on the swarm that requests it. This proved to be an extremely efficient and reliable model for the transfer of enormous files that took much longer with P2P solutions that came before it.
With the combination of increasingly common broadband connections and Bit Torrent’s ability to move around immense amounts of data, the transfer of video files such as television shows and movies, which are much larger than the music that was so common on the first P2P networks, reached a new level of viability. In late 2002 Suprnova.org, the first big Bit Torrent search engine appeared and helped to establish Bit Torrent as the king of file-sharing protocols. Two years later, Suprnova.org shut down in the face of legal threats, but other sites sprang up to take its place and today, Bit Torrent remains an exceedingly popular choice for file-sharers all over the world.
Enter the MPAA
In November 2004, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) followed in the footsteps of the RIAA and announced a legal campaign against individual file-sharers accompanied by a calculated propaganda campaign. This included an ominous advertisement depicting a huge list of user names and IP addresses with bold red text stating “IF YOU THINK YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH ILLEGALLY TRAFFICKING IN MOVIES, THINK AGAIN.” followed by “LAWSUITS BEGIN THIS WEEK.”. This strong statement set the current tone in the industry’s relentlessly misguided battle against their own customers that rages on today.
In his essay “Counter Cartographies”, Brian Holmes poetically asserts that “the Internet is the vector of a new geography” and goes on to say that “networks have become the dominant structures of cultural, economic and military power”.  Dynamic data visualization is a form that has emerged as a response to this cultural climate of pervasive networks. Its the way that we can derive meaning from this new geography of the Internet. Visualization, in the broader sense, has a longer history in scientific fields, medicine and mathematics. Only recently has visualization taken on a greater presence in the cultural sphere where it has historically been “confined to 2D graphs and charts in the financial section of a newspaper” and other similarly dry contexts. 
More recently, data visualizations have increasingly been met with enthusiasm on the Internet and elsewhere. Many contemporary websites built on user-generated content feature XML feeds of their data which is easily fed into any number of development environments for visualization. This has given way to web-based visualizations for popular websites like Flickr and del.icio.us that allow users to experience and explore their own data in revealing ways.
At the same time, a movement of art has formed around data visualization where the rapidly churning information of the Internet becomes the source material for deeply aesthetic experiences. The work of many data visualization artists has been a clear influence on my work. In the following section, I examine several such works.
What struck me about the Carnivore project was how each client managed to sculpt the same kind of source data in its own way revealing different characteristics about it. One client, World Wall Painters by Area3, depicts two graffiti artists who spray paint flags onto a wall, depicting the geographical origin of a packet from CarnivorePE. After a while, the cops come and chase them away, some other guys arrive and clean the entire wall and the whole process repeats. In Entropy8Zuper’s Guernica, an explicit reference is drawn to the surveillance theme that the Carnivore project implies. Packets from different protocols sniffed on the network spawn different animated objects in a dystopic war-torn world. Jonah Brucker-Cohen’s POLICESTATE is an installation featuring a fleet of miniature radio-controlled police cars that move in patterns triggered by police codes that the software client associates with domestic terrorism-related keywords. According to Brucker-Cohen, “the data being ’snooped’ by the authorities is the same data used to control the police vehicles. Thus the police become puppets of their own surveillance.”. 
Organic Information Design
In his master’s thesis entitled Organic Information Design, Ben Fry advances strategies for visualizing dynamic data using techniques that simulate organic phenomenon. Fry’s visualizations that demonstrate his methodology are aesthetically impressive, but he also gives ample consideration to the utility that can be derived from his approach. To this end, he outlines a number of organic properties that can contribute to a self-organizing system that can help designers tame the often unruly nature of dynamic information sources.
In Fry’s project Anemone, the usage structure of the pages of a website reveals itself as a trembling organism. Rather than display the entire website, Anemone reveals only the pieces in usage. A popular page getting a lot of attention grows larger and larger, while a page that goes neglected eventually atrophies and dissolves out of the visualization. The structure of the organism represents the links between the pages on the site, but features an additional layer which expresses the hierarchical structure of the pages on the server.
We Feel Fine & Listening Post
The Internet may be a giant network of cold, unfeeling computers, but much of the data that courses through it is very human. People on the Internet are chatting, communicating and emoting. Two pieces of art stand out to me for their elegant ways of bringing a deeply human element to data visualization.
In We Feel Fine by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, an algorithm sifts through thousands of blog entries in search of strings of text that begin with the words “I feel” or “I am feeling”. Harris and Kamvar have taken on the insurmountable task of visualizing how everyone on the Internet is feeling. When you open the visualization, a swarm of multi-colored particles explodes out from the center and buzz about the screen, each representing a feeling someone has blogged in the last few hours. Click a feeling and it forms into the words from the blog posting where the feeling was found.
There are a number of different ‘movements’ that We Feel Fine can run in and it is highly configurable: if you want to read about women in their 30’s feeling groovy in sunny weather, you can easily modify the settings. Some of the movements take on a more statistical form, plotting out the most common feelings, but for me, the most effective is Murmurs. In this movement, the particles all gravitate to the top of the screen and one by one, they scroll down to reveal their feeling. Its startling how poignant and personal the words contained in each little particle are. The Internet contains a myriad of blogs and a great many of them may be filled with ranting noise, but We Feel Fine distills this chaos into the raw emotions of human beings. It is deeply affecting.
Listening Post, which Harris and Kamvar cite as an influence on their approach to We Feel Fine, is an installation that takes textual data harvested from public chat rooms and bulletin boards on the Internet. These texts are the source material for a stunning audiovisual treatment in six movements that takes place across a vast, arcing array of more than two hundred suspended small LCD displays while synthesized voices intone the text into a harmonious choral.
Like We Feel Fine, the text taken from the Internet is parsed for key phrases, in this case phrases beginning with “I am” which leads to similarly powerful statements of human self-assertion. Taking these statements out of their original context and bringing them back to life with a computer voice has an equalizing effect that powerfully suggests the infinite bond of our collective human nature. Without a face or context to associate with these quotations, we are left to interpret them as raw feelings. Taken with Listening Post’s austere and musical presentation, which itself references the matrix structure of the Internet, the text takes on an operatic quality as it washes over the viewer.
Domestic surveillance has long been a topic of interest for me. Shortly after learning about Carnivore, I built a surveillance-themed video game client for it called Carniforce, the name being a reference to Lifeforce, an 8-bit era scrolling shooter which had an aesthetic influence on my client. For my thesis project, I envisioned a sprawling surveillance game that spanned numerous protocological settings on the Internet. One level would have you interacting with people in chat rooms, while another would be generated by data culled from MySpace page-scraping. As I whittled down my sprawling video game surveillance opera down into a project I could conceivably execute in the allotted time, I grew more and more interested in a level that I had conceived around the Bit Torrent protocol.
The way that the Bit Torrent protocol functions is a truly novel use of the interconnectedness of the Internet. People from all over the world spontaneously form a temporary network, all in the name of acquiring the same file. Its a powerful concept that conjures up strong images in my mind. My interest led me to search for any and all visualizations that had been created for Bit Torrent. The results of this search were disappointing.
Best known is probably the 3D View plugin for the popular cross-platform Bit Torrent client Azureus. In 3D View, peers on the swarm are represented by cylindrical volumes. Another cylindrical volume representing your computer is in the center and animated smaller cylinders representing data packets go to and from the central cylinder as data moves between your computer and others on the swarm. Its a functional visualization, but the way it spatially configures the peers makes it nearly impossible to keep track of an individual. From an aesthetic perspective, its quite bland.
A OS X-specific client called Bits on Wheels features a similar 3D visualization that is mainly distinguished by a more saturated color palette and more configurable display options. BTSim, a visualization built with Processing doesn’t actually use real Bit Torrent data but simply illustrates the distributed method of file transfer. Despite the middling aesthetics of these three visualizations, they have each garnered a considerable amount of attention. The 3D View plugin for Azureus has been downloaded 135,473 times as of this writing. Bits on Wheels and BTSim’s respective websites have both enjoyed enormous surges of visitors from mentions on high traffic blogs. Clearly, an enthusiastic crowd of Bit Torrent users are eager to see their beloved protocol visualized, but they have yet to be properly served.
A Motivated Visualization
While my initial idea for a surveillance-based video game focused on the civil liberties abuses of the federal government, my idea for a Bit Torrent visualization had become more focused on the MPAA and their own war on file-sharers. My intention was to visualize the functionality of Bit Torrent, but where previous visualizations had portrayed it in an objectively schematic manner, I wanted to evoke the heavily politicized current state of the protocol itself. Also, I wanted to make it look way cooler.
A common critique of data visualization art is that often the mapping of data into a visual form seems arbitrary. Since there are such a myriad of possibilities in translating information into image, data visualization art can often be perceived as unmotivated. Lev Manovich refers to this tendency as the “dark side” of data visualization art, going on to say, “By allowing us to map anything into anything else, to construct infinite number of different interfaces to a media object, to follow infinite trajectories through the object, and so on, computer media simultaneously makes all these choices appear arbitrary � unless the artist uses special strategies to motivate her or his choices.”.  This is a concern that all data visualization artists should take to heart. All the works that I’ve mentioned in the preceding section stand out to me as pieces of art that exhibit a more than sufficient level of authorial intent and they are stronger for this. In Torrent Raiders, I go about motivating the visualization by foregrounding it in the context of the MPAA and their war on file-sharers.
Torrent Raiders is a visualization, but employs idioms and aesthetics of video games in order to engage the user in a fiction. The “player” of Torrent Raiders is put in the role of an operative tasked with surveilling Bit Torrent swarms. To move around and interact with the visualization, the player uses their ship (i.e. Raider), which bares a resemblance to a riot helmet, to traverse the planet and hunt down packets of data as they make their way to and from peers to the players computer. The visualization is set around the orbit of a representation of the Earth. The geographic location of each peer in the swarm is determined and represented through the use of a geolocation database. This is the basis for the spatial organization that I arrived at after experimenting with several less meaningful alternatives. I was actually quite surprised to find that no one had previously bothered to create visualizations of the geographic distribution of peers on Bit Torrent swarms since I believe that this brilliantly underscores its powerful distributed nature.
More information about individual peers can be gleaned by passing a targeting reticle over the peers. When the host computer begins downloading from a peer, objects representing packets, which vaguely resemble big rig trucks with a payload, begin to shoot out at a rate corresponding to the actual speed of transfer with the peer. When the player begins Torrent Raiders, they are told that their objective is to intercept and scrutinize as many of these packets as possible as a means of collecting evidence against individual file-sharers. The mechanism used to accomplish this is projectile weaponry.
After successfully shooting a packet, it is visually designated as having been intercepted and the player is awarded points. All packets travel up to a mothership, meant to represent the file being built on the players hard drive, that hovers ominously above the Earth. When enough evidence is collected against a peer, the player can shoot the peer with a special “subpoena blaster” weapon, effecting an overall litigation score against that peer. There is no game over, danger or opportunity to take damage, but scoring higher and damning more and more peers to hellish, albeit fictional, litigation can be rewarded with a spot on a global high score board.
One difficulty in visualizing Bit Torrent comes from its distributed architecture. It is only possible to visualize the swarm in relation to the host computer that Torrent Raiders being run on. As a means to create a broader visualization of a given swarm, information that the Torrent Raiders client collects as it is run gets sent to a database residing on the Torrent Raiders central server. Later, the aggregated information in this database will be fed into a Processing applet that will allow users to visually explore it inside a web browser.
This will only be useful if many Torrent Raiders users run the visualization on the same torrent swarms. To help facilitate this, TorrentRaiders.com will feature a message board where players can post “bounties” on specific torrents which will include direct links to .torrent meta files. I hope that this will help build a community around Torrent Raiders and foster a competitive element, giving players some agency in conducting traffic and surveillance to torrents of their specification.
As a dynamic data visualization of Bit Torrent, Torrent Raiders goes beyond an objective view of the protocol at work and casts it in the light of the current politics surrounding Bit Torrent’s pervasive usage to download copyrighted material. More than just a visualization, Torrent Raiders is a fully functioning Bit Torrent client with a fiction of its own that invites its players to play the role of the organization they most likely hate. While committing virtual violence on the packets of data they are policing, they are too complicit in the process, creating a complex and provocative aesthetic experience of information.
[1,3] Electronic Frontier Foundation. “RIAA v. The People: Two Years Later.” EFF.org. 3 November 2005. 19 February 2007
 Baldas, Tresa. “Music piracy defendants fighting back.” The National Law Journal. 10 October 2005. ALM Media, Inc. 19 February 2007
[4,6,8] Manovich, Lev. “The Anti-Sublime Ideal in Data Art.” Manovich.net 2002. 19 February 2007
 Holmes, Brian. “Counter Cartographies.” Else/Where: Mapping – New Carotgraphies of Networks and Territories. Eds. Janet Abrams and Peter Hall. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Design Institute, 2006. 20-28.
 Brucker-Cohen, Jonah. “Police State: Protect, Serve, Subvert”. Coin-Operated.com. 19 Februay 2007