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Watson Proposal

Coding the Revolution: The radical philosophy of free software

Geeks like to think that they can ignore politics, you can leave politics alone, but politics won’t leave you alone.” –Richard Stallman

A subculture is growing in Europe, and around the world. Its members go by many different names. Some call themselves hacktivists, techno-anarchists, disruptive technology advocates, or simply hackers (“hackers” in this sense refers to skilled users doing clever things, rather than to computer criminals). They run community centers, providing free Internet access using free software and salvaged hardware. They hold seminars, sharing their technical knowledge and their politics with the public. They construct elaborate digital art installations. In extreme cases, they have launched cyber attacks against the P.R.C.’s firewall and organized secret encrypted proxies to subvert censorship in Iran and Syria. Some have explicit manifestos. Others operate according to a more loosely-defined hacker code. They share a commitment to free software, a conviction that information should be free, and a belief that they are bettering the world. In many ways, they are manifesting the free software ethos in real life.

These groups exist in almost every Western European nation, but also in less-wealthy countries such as Slovenia, Croatia. Similar communities have sprung up in the new world too, in places like Mexico, Chile, and Argentina.

I want to understand who these people are, what inspires them; what motivates them. I want to know what is it that makes them go beyond writing code and take their technology to the streets. I want to know what they hope to accomplish through their actions. I want to see what they have accomplished already.

Some of the communities and places I intend to visit include:

  • PUSCII – The Progressive Utrecht Subversive Centre for Information Interchange located in Utrecht in the Netherlands. They were recently evicted from their former location. When I spoke to some of their members recently, they had found a new space in an abandoned former underwear factory and hoped to be back up and running soon. Before their eviction, they provided open access internet terminals, hosted training seminars, and ran a hardware recycling program that donated free computers to the public.

  • C-base – Located in Berlin, Germany, C-base has the distinction of being a registered non-profit organization. Their community includes an elaborate, tongue-in-cheek foundation myth centered on a crashed space station buried underneath the streets of Berlin. According to the story, the Fernsehturm Berlin is the antenna of the station protruding from the earth. C-base has been involved with several very large-scale digital art projects.

  • pRiNT! – Located in Dijon, France, pRiNT! is set up in an abandoned slaughterhouse. They are explicitly anti-capitalist, oppose the commercialization of the internet and engage in free software evangelization.

  • Monteparadiso HackLab – Located in Pula, Croatia, the Monteparadiso HackLab occupies part of an enormous historic fort dating from the time of the Austrian empire. They run a free radio station and frequently host multinational hacker conferences, and I will time my visit to coincide with one of these gatherings next year.

  • Kiberpipa (“Cyberpipe”) – Located in Ljubljana, Slovenia in the basement of a café, Kiberpipa is focused on the intersection of science, technology and art. They host a computer museum and offer free video editing terminals for producing alternative media. They also help develop a number of free software applications.

  • OventHACK – Located one hour outside San Cristobal, Mexico, OventHACK shares space with a free school and aims to provide technology support to the school and surrounding community. Their location is remote and poses special challenges in obtaining equipment and connectivity.

  • RedHack.Lab – Located in Santiago, Chile, RedHack is one of the more active groups in that nation. They are involved in the development of the X-Evian Linux distribution, they also provide web development and hosting support to other copyleft media and activist groups, and are working to deploy a free wireless network.

  • LowLab – Located in Rosario, Argentina, LowLab has been involved in custom hardware projects as well public education seminars and awareness events. They recently threw a party for “Software Freedom Day” (September 15).

The hacktivist movement is somewhat transitory in nature. Groups get evicted or members lose interest; other groups spring up elsewhere. I selected these particular groups because they seem to be among the larger, more well-established representatives of this movement; they were consequently easier to get in touch with from the States. I intend to spend an average of about seven weeks at each location. I think that should give me enough time to establish trust with the members of a group and gain a sufficiently comprehensive understanding of their activities and ideas. Some groups may be more active and I will stay longer; in other cases, I may move on sooner. I also intend to take side trips if a particularly interesting conference or meeting is taking place elsewhere. Such meetings take place fairly regularly, cover a variety of subjects from data security to the role of women in the hacker community, and are usually announced a few months in advance. One particularly large meet-up called What the Hack? is a week-long event held every four years. The next one will take place in 2009, and I plan attend if it is at all feasible.

All of these groups are continually looking for volunteers, and I intend to immerse myself in the activities of the communities I visit. My technical abilities should allow me to contribute meaningfully to their projects. I can set up and maintain Linux and other free software. I know my way around a soldering gun. I can build new computers from salvaged parts. I can use my knowledge of web design to help them expand their English-language web presence, as well as document my adventures on my own blog.

Despite the free software community’s commitment to localization (the process of translating software so people can use it in their native language), the fact remains that much technical information is only published in English. Additionally, English is the most common language used on the internet for forums and community help sites. As a result, many tech-savvy individuals wind up acquiring at least a functional grasp of English. Most of the groups mentioned above provide at least some English information on their web sites, and even the members of the French group I chatted with seemed more than willing to talk to me in English. I am confident that I will be able to carry out my project primarily in English. Additionally, I have a working knowledge of Spanish which should prove helpful in Mexico and South America, and if selected, I will put effort into learning some basic Croatian and Slovenian to allow me to better navigate daily life in those countries.

To minimize living expenses, I intend to avail myself of the hospitality of members of the community as much as possible. Where that is impossible, I will seek out medium-term rental housing. I am flexible and willing to live with roommates. I believe that I should be able to find reasonably affordable housing.

I expect to learn an immeasurable amount from this project. The people involved in these groups are tech geeks of the highest order, and I expect to be overwhelmed by new information about software and circuitry. But even more than technical skills, I expect to be exposed to a wide variety of social and political outlooks. I want to examine how these groups and their members have adopted (and adapted) the philosophical underpinnings of free software in the real world. I hope to return from my sojourn with a deeper understanding of computers, technology, and social activism.

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