Looks like the last time I posted events here was in 2010, just before Bushwick Open Studios. Well it’s that time of year again!
- We Are All Anonymous, Tonight May 23rd, 7pm at Triple Canopy, 155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn, NY (sadly I won’t be able to make this, but it sounds awesome)
- Flux Death Match: The New Aesthetic, Wednesday May 30th, 8pm at Flux Factory, 39-31 29th Street, Long Island City
- Bushwick Open Studios 2012 with my Future Archaeology pals, June 1st and 2nd from 12–7pm. 1381 Myrtle Ave Apt 4C (entrance on Himrod St), near the Knickerbocker M train stop. I’ll be showing some of my recent photography work as well as Occupy.here.
The recent absence of regular posting here has mainly been due to project overload on my part. For the last week I’ve been focusing on my activist wifi project, Occupy.here. On Saturday I participated in FEAST Brooklyn, a kind of science fair exposition for community art projects. The way it works is everyone who attends pays $20 for a banquet dinner and a vote for which project of ten should be funded. I did not receive funding, but I got a lot of great feedback and my first round of user testing with about a dozen people trying the project out.
I was satisfied to see the technology performing flawlessly. As far as I know, everyone who tried to was able to join the wifi network and participate in the online forum. I still consider myself a newbie to wifi hacking and programming in Lua, but I’ve mustered enough stability to start paying more attention to interaction design and social dynamics. Seeing how people used the software in practice was really interesting. It seems obvious in retrospect, but presenting an anonymous message forum to such a festive audience yielded an uncomplicated gregarious kind of conversation.
While the forum’s conversation didn’t cover politics or the Occupy movement, the invisible backchannel aspect of it was compelling. The first, most active, message thread was about the food at the event. Apparently the cheese was a big hit, although sadly I wasn’t able to try it myself. This thread included the forum’s first hash tag, #CheeseRevolution, and a long string of emoji burgers. In another thread an attendee complained they’d come to the event without a date, boldly listing a phone number that presumably belongs to the lonely author. I was amused to see the AOL-era “ASL” (age/sex/location) inquiry and “Anyone got any weed?” It was silly and fun, and felt entirely appropriate to the event.
How the discussion is framed in a broader social context is very important. In the deployment at FEAST, users were offered an open architecture without many cues about which topics of conversation the forum is meant to support. The next iteration will feature a more prominent introduction to the Occupy.here platform and host an archive of essays and media about the Occupy movement from a variety of sources.
I’m interested to see what effect, if any, these changes have on the subject and character of conversations. I wonder if deemphasizing the message forum might preclude conversation altogether, favoring a passive mode of media consumption. I’ll gather some usage data to see how many users browse without participating.
Users identified themselves about 50% of the time, half posting under the default handle “Anonymous” and half adopting first names or two letter initials. For my next round of testing I’m going to adjust the interface where users select their usernames, perhaps not offering a default option. I’m still committed to supporting anonymity, despite the challenges it creates in reaching higher level discussions. I do think it’s possible and perhaps making all users uniquely identifiable might contribute toward discussions with slightly more substance.
Probably the most important factor for user behavior is the physical (and social) context the wifi router appears in. This coming Saturday I’ll be showing Occupy.here at the Activist Technology Demo Day event at Eyebeam. I’m guessing the audience will be more oriented toward technology and activism. The location of the venue, in Chelsea rather than Greenpoint, will also have some bearing on the next round of users. That’s a lot of variables changing at once, but I’ll be sure to post my decidedly non-scientific findings next week.
This afternoon I hung out for a few hours at the Occupy Together Meetup. I met some smart developers, made a few tweaks to the code, and spoke to a reporter from the Wall Street Journal. I’m hoping to also get this in the Occupied Wall Street Journal, which I’m guessing gets read by more people in Zuccotti Park.
I’ve finally set up a GitHub repository! It also includes some documentation on how to configure OpenWRT to behave like a captive portal. I’m trying to think of a better fake-TLD than “.offline”. Dot-occupy? I’m open to suggestions.
Update: I’ve renamed the project to occupy.here! More soon…
I’ve proposed a course at The Public School: Hacking the WRT54GL.
Lately I’ve been doing some projects that involve serving tiny self-contained websites on autonomous Linksys WRT54GL routers running OpenWRT. That is, websites you can only access by connecting to a specific wifi signal. In a creative sense I like the notion of giving web pages a physical presence, of focusing on a particular audience in a particular place. The technology is also pretty fun to work with.
This morning I stopped by Zuccatti Park and left the wifi router running ows.offline! It seems that weekday mornings are a lot less crowded, and the people I met who were awake and in the park were exactly the people who I wanted to know about the project. I chatted with some folks at the info desk and they were really enthusiastic about the idea! I explained the idea to this one guy who promptly plugged me into the generator and said “you are awesome!”
I’m just going to play it by ear and just drop in for maintenance/backups and promotion when I can.
The label reads:
- Connect to wifi network “ows.offline”
- Visit http://ows.offline/
Code release and promotional flyers coming soon!
Occupy Wall Street
Like many New Yorkers I’ve been observing and processing the occupation of Zuccatti Park with a sense of cautious enthusiasm. It took me a few days to figure out what it’s actually about, and I’ve come around to accept their position that protesting with no stated agenda is legitimate. Here are some resources I’ve found useful, but really the best way to get a sense for things is to walk around and talk to people in the park.
- Ezra Klein’s interview with David Graeber
- “We Are All Human Microphones Now”
- The Public School: Learning From Occupy Wall Street, meeting again next Sunday
- McKenzie Wark on Occupy Wall Street: ‘How to Occupy an Abstraction’
In short, there are two separate things happening:
- The occupation itself (also): a group of activists with a range of leftist politics (plus some Ron Paul supporters) are using occupation as a tactic
- The New York City General Assembly: an experimental process of political deliberation and decision making is being used to guide the occupation
One challenge I’ve been working through is how to best express my sympathy for the occupation without bailing on my existing responsibilities. My Fall schedule has been really busy, which has made it especially difficult to participate.
Of course there are a variety of things one can do to show support and I’m hoping to contribute in a way that plays to my strengths. Below is a project proposal I’ve submitted to the Occupennial art exhibition (more info).
I’ve been working on hacking a Linksys WRT54GL wifi router to run very simple web forum software I developed. It’s part of an art process that I’m calling Situated Net Art. Like other instances of net art it relies on web technologies such as HTML, but is intended to be experienced from a specific physical location rather than adopting the more universal context of the World Wide Web.
The motivation behind ows.offline is that the web offers a fantastic array of communication tools, but often the conversation suffers from certain trade-offs as the number of participants rises. Proximity could be a useful filter for those with the greatest need for better communication tools. The forum is an attempt to complement the existing deliberative process of the NYC General Assembly and offer its constituents a text-based forum to hash out their ideas with greater subtlety.
Another component I’m interested in exploring is how access to the necessary hardware is or is not available to occupiers. I would like to develop some kind of social contract that stipulates the laptop or smartphone being used to access the forum might be lent to those without access. A similar type of arrangement was used in Heath Bunting’s BorderXing database, where users of the site must agree to become internet providers in a kind of peer-to-peer distributed net cafe.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user shankbone
I’m not sure an art context is the best way to pursue this, but at least it’s a process I’m familiar with. I’m still pretty uncertain about the logistics of maintaining electricity and shepherding my little wireless router through the chaos of the plaza. Perhaps inclusion in an art exhibition is a way to keep the hardware safe and dry. The software itself is already written, I’m just trying to figure out the best way to deploy it. I’ll release the software soon on GitHub with instructions on how others might use it with their own wifi routers.
Of course I’m open to feedback, so please feel free to comment below.