It’s no secret that the internet and social media can have harmful effects, from cyberbullying and political polarization to practicing predatory marketing tactics and shortening attention spans.
So how might these tools be reimagined to harness their potential for good?
“That’s the idea being explored further in a lot of new games and websites,” says Kurt Roembke, an independent composer, sound designer, and game developer based in Fort Wayne.
Roembke has long been captivated by artists and developers helping people have more positive interactions with the web and, ultimately, with each other. One thing that sparked his interest in this topic was the 2012 PlayStation 3 game Journey, in which players communicate by using their controllers to “sing” to each other, rather than type words.
“It uses these minimal communication features to fight the negativity that often comes with anonymous interactions among people on the internet,” Roembke says. “It’s this idea–rethinking our interactions online—that’s being explored further in newer games and websites.”
From July 21-Sept. 10, Roembke is curating a gallery of these games and websites called “Our Web” at Bread & Circus at 3400 North Anthony Blvd. The gallery will feature five artists and/or teams from around the world, offering alternative ways to experience the internet and human connection online.
“The current internet landscape is flooded with design practices that treat us as a commodity to be processed and sold, rather than as complex human beings,” Roembke’s curator statement reads. “This gallery is filled with projects developed by individuals and small teams who strive to create a web that cares that you’re human, and cares that your interactions with it come at a cost to both you and the planet.”
Roembke says Bread & Circus’s relatively new and intimate gallery space in Fort Wayne is ideal for “Our Web,” where visitors will be able to play and/or watch games on-site, or simply learn about artists and scan QR codes to experiment with at home. Many of the games and experiences featured in “Our Web” are accompanied by extensive writings, either produced by the developers and artists themselves or by those they’ve inspired. More than anything, Roembke hopes the gallery inspires conversation, curiosity, and creative thinking about future applications of the internet and technology.
“Hopefully, future generations will see these alternatives and consider how to apply these concepts in their own lives to have better interactions,” he says. “We’re hoping this gallery serves as a library where people can experience ideas and think about these topics.”
There’s a timely element to the gallery, as well. One video game featured, called “A Community Garden Outside Of Kyiv”
by Dean Moynihan, allows strangers to tend a virtual community garden together outside of Kyiv, Ukraine, as a reflection on Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine, which began in late February and has claimed at least 47,000 lives so far. The game was released on March 5.
“It’s an expression of working together to have a moment of calm and quiet and to think about what’s happening in Ukraine,” Roembke says. “It’s about taking care of something with a community of people—without having any other connection to them.”
Along with rethinking how the internet connects people to each other, “Our Web” offers themes related to sustainability and people’s connections to the environment, too.
“Servers and websites on servers are pretty big energy consumers,” Roembke says.
Sarah Suraci and Kurt Roembke of Fort Wayne enrolled in Carbon Neutral Indiana in January 2021.
One project featured in the gallery, called Solar Protocol, by New York-based artists Tega Brain, Alex Nathanson, and Benedetta Piantella draws attention to this connection. The artists created a web platform hosted across a network of solar-powered servers set up in different locations around the world.
"The website has a collection of links that are locked unless certain environmental factors are met at the server site," Roembke says. "So one link will unlock if the sun is shining directly on the server, and another unlocks if the wind is blowing in a specific direction near the server."
An artist and web developer himself, Roembke says curating “Our Web” has prompted self-reflection on his part, too. Working with Carbon Neutral Indiana, he has already taken assessments to reduce the energy consumption and carbon footprint of his household. But he hadn’t considered the environmental impact of his websites.
“It’s something I’m paying more attention to,” Roembke says.
SoundWalk is a free smartphone app that pairs music and stories to places using GPS technology.
In recent years, as a sound designer, he’s been building an app called SoundWalk
, which offers audio walking tour experiences of Fort Wayne, pairing music and podcast-like stories of local historians and residents to physical places. So far, he has built three cost-free Soundwalk experiences for the Little Turtle Memorial, McCulloch Park, and the Fairfield Corridor—all around the idea of connecting people and environments.
Ultimately, his hope for the “Our Web” gallery is the same as his hope for SoundWalk—that it helps people remember what the internet was originally intended to be: A source of human connection and learning.
“The ideal version of the internet and technology is connecting people to each other in a way that’s both informationally helpful, but also actually understands people and where they’re coming from—two of the things the internet right now is pretty bad at doing,” Roembke says. “Both SoundWalk and this gallery are about improving human connections.”