8 minute read

In Two Ways to Emerge, Johnson gives a good argument on how electronic mobilization (as seen, for example, in the Dean campaign) is good at building a swarm of activity, but bad at moving to a more self-monitoring whole that is able to prevent wholescale runaway and manages it's capacity and can direct and adapt.

Arguably, this is parallel to the whole problem with the net-as-community that Lessig and Post looked at, and as discussed in class, the problem of growth on the net led to a breakdown of its emergent self-governance features. The networked structure of media is built to spread and multiply and create positive feedback loops of communication, but there's little if any limit. The only communities that have survived massive growth have done so by finding ruling structures that limit the runaway tendency (think of the evolution of Slashdot.org's system of registration, karma, and meta-moderation). It's like there's a carrying capacity to Internet communities, where, instead of actual death of the community, it's more like cancer.

All of this reminded me of the Cyber-Zapatista movement, and their attempt at the first "DDOS" (Distributed Denial of Service Attack) using an e-performance-art-group's floodnet program, but starting in 98 with a "manual" DDOS:

In solidarity with the Zapatista movement we welcome all netsurfers with ideals of justice, freedom, solidarity and liberty within their hearts, to a virtual sit-in. On January 29, 1998 from 4:00 p.m. GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) to 5:00 p.m. (in the following five web sites, symbols of Mexican neoliberalism):

Technical instructions: Connect with your browser to the
upper mentioned web sites and push the bottom "reload" several times for
an hour (with in between an interval of few seconds).

Electronic Disturbance Theatre Archives

So, the legality of this is a bit shady, and I think it's unsurprising that there's no widely-popular DDOS/activism tool (floodnet hardly counts compared to a full-scale DDOS). The other side of this distributed-activism idea, though, a more creative (rather than destrucive) side has some interesting ideas as well.

Projects like Actlab TV/Alluvium and soon, digital witness provide the average joe schmoe with an unexciting Internet connection to host an online TV show and not have his modem burn to the ground or get kicked out of his hosting/ISP company -- it uses similar technology to bittorrent, so that the more users interested in the video stream, the better the quality of the stream becomes, as each viewer shares his/her bandwidth to help stream the rest of the video. It takes a bit more effort than bittorrent, though, as obviously for a stream, it matters which segment of the file you're downloading to keep the stream running smoothly.

This same technology also has interesting street-activism benefits, potentially speaking -- a small organized group could set up some hardware to videotape an event, say a WTO demonstration, and stream it with a very short delay live to the Internet, using a wireless mesh network to connect the cameraman on the scene to a recording person in a nearby safe(r) location (no fear of having the cameraman arrested and the film confiscated), and the use a high-speed cellular connection to stream it to the net.

The barriers to cyber activism remain the cost, training, and straight-up knowledge that these tools even exist. In some cases, this need gets addressed through other means -- leapfrogging into cell networks provides many useful tools for the 3rd world cyber-activist, as does getting involved (as many developing countries are trying to do) into the open source movement -- which requires local technologists skilled in things like Linux (which we all know is a gateway drug to piracy and anti-government, anti-establishment lunacy).

There are also the occasional benefits of government programs, such as Venezuela's TeleSur. TeleSur is an attempt led by Chavez to combat the US media's dominance in South America, and is meant as a CNN competitor, but (at least as originally intended) there's some hope for some grass-roots reporting:

Another part of the inspiration comes from Venezuela’s community TV movement.

I joined Iris, Gladys and Wilfredo, of Catia TV, in a small community hall in the Caracas shanty town of San Juan. They were beginning to recruit and train another of Catia TV's so-called community production teams.

The idea is to give poor communities like this their own say, by teaching ordinary people, from children to pensioners, to make television programmes for themselves.

One of Catia's founders, Blanca Eekhout, is now the head of Venezuelan state TV. She was an adviser on the establishment of Telesur.

"For me it's indispensable for communities to have in their hands channels of communication which are their own. And what's more, this has to have an international aspect."

Viva la independencia!