Podcasting The Occupation

Posted on Nov 25, 2011 in Podcasts

In October Willow Brugh and Lisha Sterling launched a new podcast about geekdom, technology and society: BrainMeats! The plan is to release one podcast per month, supplemented by frequent blog posts posted about the topics discussed in that month’s show. For the first episode of BrainMeats! Willow hosted a conference call via Skype with Ari Lacenski, Eleanor Saitta, Matthew Borgatti, Rubin Starset, and Smári McCarthy about the history of OWS, the meaning of illegibility within the movement, software tools for protesters, and what hackers and makers can do to support the movement.

The podcast starts out with with a history lesson of sorts from Smári, explaining how we got to this point. As the economy collapsed in Iceland, Ireland, and Greece, people took to the streets in protest. Then, in December of last year, a popular revolution in Tunisia was followed in January by uprisings in Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Syria and protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Western Sahara.

The whole cascade of protests, civil wars and revolutions became known as the “Arab Spring”, and the courage of the people who took to the streets against totalitarian regimes gave the people of the West an example to follow in reacting to our own political issues. Over the summer, the people of Israel took to the streets, first to protest the high price of cottage cheese, then to protest the high price of housing, and finally to demand social justice across a swath of economic, racial and political issues. On September 17, the Occupy Wall Street protest began in New York, and by October 6, a planned peace protest in Washington, D.C. became subsumed into the Occupy Wall Street movement. By the second week in October, the Occupy movement had spread throughout the Western nations. At this point, there have been Occupy protests in over 900 cities worldwide.

In fact, the differences between the Arab uprisings and the protests in Iceland, Europe and the United States may not be so large. All of these protests were triggered by particularly difficult economic situations which have been brought on at least in part by financial corruption of governments by corporations and the very wealthy. Another similarity between all of these cases is the use of the Internet and mobile technology to schedule the protests, enable communication during civil actions, and spread the news of events on the ground directly without the mediation of corporate-owned news outlets.

Willow asked what the connection between the Occupy movement and open source culture might be. “I think that it’s a reflection of the participatory culture movement that we’ve been seeing… in everything from Maker Faire to the hacker space movement… to increasing interest in citizen journalism.” Ari explained, “…This is an ongoing movement toward every person in a society having a more of stake in what happens to them rather than just saying, ‘Well you know, these corporations control the media and I guess we just have to live with that.’”

A portion of the discussion centered on individual tools that have been created in response to the needs of protesters. The lessons of early 2011 have led to new ways of using technology in an activist mode. Some software tools have been offered as a way to give more anonymity to protesters, and some of those have turned out to be less than secure. Even in the case of programs that were written with the best of intentions, sometimes they can be two edged swords that can be used by the authorities against activists as well. Other tools, like Vibe or Sukey deal with location-specific communication. During this section of the discussion, Matt told us about NoiseTor, Noisebridge’s Tor exit node service that you can support with donations to help provide anonymity to browsers, journalists, and activists anywhere in the world.

Not all open source tools are software, either. Ideas for organization and best practices can be “open source”, and some of the best methods for public speaking, voting, organizing committees and meeting the basic needs of the movement have spread quickly through the occupations around the world. Musicians and artists have been creating creative commons works to spread the ideas of the movement and support the protesters. Designers have been creating open source designs for posters, placards, and other items, in order to help people express themselves.

The end of the discussion revolved around some of what makes the Occupy movement special. Some of the participants felt that the illegibility, the difficulty in understanding just what the protesters want, is part of the power of this movement. The lack of a unified platform beyond the need to dismantle the power of corporations and money over people creates a need to speak to individuals more closely if you want to understand the movement as a whole. The flavor of the protests comes from those face-to-face discussions, the small meetings and the large general assemblies that make up the political process within the movement. In essence, what is special about Occupy is that it is suggesting new ways of functioning in society not just through theoretical discussion but through trial and error on the ground. Perhaps Occupy can’t be understood from the outside at all because it is participatory by nature.

See http://hiphopoccupies.com/ as an example. Other examples have been springing up faster than I can keep track of them all.