This post is cross-posted at Civic Media + Tactical Design in Contested Spaces
Saturday afternoon I attended the Activist Demo Day at Eyebeam, along with other students in my Civic Media and Tactical Design class. A good number of people crammed into half of a gallery to talk about how technology can aid the goals of community organizers and activists in many ways. Some of what I saw was the application of existing tools for those goals, such as the General Assembly’s Tech Ops use of RSS aggregators and a “wishes” and “gifts” to allocate information and resources. There was also MyI,
a collaborative-collective front page based on the concept that the accumulation of constantly updating unedited images from a multitude of viewpoints more accurately depicts contemporary society and events. An app that allows users to instantaneously upload media from handheld devices to the Internet, MyI builds on the use of ubiquitous photography in modern technology as a key motivator and communicator for activism and information.
There were also some fairly innovative ideas. Protesting robots, essentially very low-tech sign holders and bullhorn mounts actually seemed to have some really interesting thought behind them. After all, how would you feel if you saw a little robot hoisting a sign at you? It reminded me of IAA’s Little Brother, something that’s over a decade old and I still haven’t seen used or mentioned anywhere.
I won’t go over everything, but I really wanted to see something that wasn’t essentially a “activist alternative” to an existing commercial tool or product. The Free Network Foundation had it.
So, there are several ideas going on here – free access, greater privacy, local data, and privately owned networks. This mesh topographical hardware has some pretty interesting applications if you think about it in the global terms FNF does – I asked Wilder about the range of the devices. One tower covered Zucotti/Liberty park, and they got up to a half mile in Dallas, but with multiple towers and more height, you could get a “bigger” networks across a larger physical area. And the signal can be boosted some as well. My idea (which he had thought about before and got pretty excited over) was to send the whole thing up in a tethered balloon, and provide access to a rural area where there’s a greater digital divide. There are some strict rules about the use of such balloons, but my guess is you could send out a signal pretty far with one less than 500 feet up, and others would just make it even better. The applications would be interesting – each unit costs $1300, and it wouldn’t take much to provide superb access for an entire remote community, so long as the unit’s global connection was stable. The main thought behind this was that “networks owned by the people make us free.” I could see the logic in that, even if I didn’t understand all the technology they were using to make it possible.
There was a high degree of civic ethic and practicality among the people at Activist Demo Day. I was struck by the thought that when society collapses (as most of us present are presumably motivated by the belief our culture is fundamentally unsustainable), these people are ready to pick up the pieces and rebuild. There is also this weird dichotomy between the reality of New York as the global center of capitalism, and activists living and breathing that culture while searching for an effective anti-capitalist dialect that doesn’t sound ridiculous or hypocritical. During the panel mini-debates emerged about things like Facebook, Twitter and the high tech tools we take for granted in a developed society, and how to reproduce those commercial mediums with tactical, pro-social intentions.
The crux of that nervous indecision came in the form of a question by Taeyoon Choi, a fellow at Eyebeam who also ran the robots. He asked, “Can we have democracy without money or capitalism?” One person commented on currency as technology itself, and a need to develop a better alternative. The unanswered questions of heterodox economics also had a lesser-acknowledged parallel which still had to be addressed: the problem of public opinion (“can we have democracy period”) and the issues general assemblies are confronted with in situations like the All-City Student Occupation or those discussed here. It’s helpful to go back to John Dewey’s The Public and it’s Problems:
The essential need, in other words, is the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion and persuasion. That is the problem of the public. We have asserted that this improvement depends essentially upon freeing and perfecting the process of inquiry and of dissemination of their conclusions. Inquiry, indeed, is a work which devolves the experts. But their expertness is not shown in framing and executing policies, but in discovering and making known the facts upon which the former depend. They are technical experts in the sense that scientific investigators and artists manifest expertise. It is not necessary that many should have the knowledge and skill to carry on the needed investigations; what is required is that they have the ability to judge the bearing of the knowledge supplied by others upon common concerns. (208-209)
Before we know whether or not we can have democracy, it will take the ideas and tools offered by these activists to create the necessary forum to discover an answer. What they’re building is a new infrastructure for “debate, discussion and persuasion” that the public desperately needs.
To see some more pics from the day, check out my photoset, and if you’d like to hear a little bit of that panel discussion (the audio was really bad as a warning) check out the following soundcloud uploads.
Dewey, John. The Public and Its Problems. Swallow Pr, 1954.