Making Internet Local

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Map of East End Net, London. Via.

Let us summarize the principal characteristics of a rhizome: unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point [...] It is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion. It has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle (milieu) from which it grows and which it overspills. 

- Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

Thus is described the rhizome, the symbol of the internet age. When Michel Foucault said that the 20th century may one day be called Deleuzian, it is doubtful that this is what he intended. And yet, the language of this young, networked century so far is mimicking the speech of the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. 

The language of Deleuze and Guattari is employed by everyone from the Israeli Defense Forces to this arts website, including any number of for-profit and non-profit startups in between those poles. War machines, companies, NGOs, and arts organizations all find utility in a philosophy that describes systems moving according to programmatic algorithms, breaking through what was solid, and re-writing the codes of meaning. War, commodities, society, and art all function according to their own programming. The public is coming to terms with the knowledge that the internal coding of networks is what defines future possibilities in the 21st century.

And yet, we are often too quick to tell ourselves that this programming can be rewritten for the greater social good. In our enthusiasm for the rhizomatic fruits of this new century, we often neglect the technology itself, replacing it with our ideas of what the technology could be. It is far easier to wield ideologically expedient speculative fictions than to develop socially expedient tools.

Consider what might be the most rhizomatic technology of them all: the mesh network. In words it is the perfect rhizome. Independent nodes set up the same piece of software in their network router. Every router connects to every other router, forming a multi-dimensional web with no central point to be disabled. It is "legion," to use a familiar term from contemporary parlance: each point is not a separate unit, but n-dimensions of distributed power. Some routers are designed to connect to each other ad hoc, over the air, without needing any wires between them. Even cell phones can connect in such a mesh, promoting a vision of infinite, pocket-sized nodes, deployed at a protest or as a hedge against infrastructure-destroying natural disaster. They could be manufactured in bulk, as cheap as a Raspberry Pi, solar-powered, disguised as innocuous light fixtures or other small appliances. The mesh network vision is of a rhizomatic network that is local, horizontal, self-healing, non-hierarchical, and scalable. Philosophically, its kung fu is perfect—bending like a reed in the wind against any foe, whether deployed by Occupy, by Egyptian revolutionaries, against censorship, war, flooding, poverty, or ISPs. In language, it is everything we expect from the future, the fantasy of certain post-structural technological desires.

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Free the Network

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Motherboard TV has debuted a short documentary on mesh networks and Occupy Wall Street, with a special focus on the Free Network Foundation. Douglas Rushkoff and Rhizome contributor Melissa Gira Grant are also interviewed.

If the argument for mesh networking, a sort of pirate radio Internet scheme that allows people to talk to one another online through no middle man, is that a centralized ‘Net lends itself to the sort of surveillance and censorship that, however futile, strokes the Internet kill switch of science fiction, is there a way to circumvent that system altogether? Is there a way to build a new network from the bottom up? To occupy a fresh Internet outside the existing confines of the Web? Or is that all just the stuff of ideological fantasy?

To check the pulse of the Internet – and to get a feel for what life’s like in the digital nerve center of what’s arguably the first fully Web-fueled social movement in America – Motherboard has been following Wilder and Tyrone Greenfield, communications director for the Free Network Foundation, for the past half year. Through the thick of Occupy marches, in squats and test-lab offices, on rooftops and all places in between, we saw Wilder, Greenfield and the FNF building and perfecting their Towers and their humble, cooperatively owned, physical Internet...


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Connecting at ContactCon

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Last week, Douglas Rushkoff hosted ContactCon at the Angel Orensanz Foundation in the Lower East Side. This unconference model symposium, co-organized by Vanessa Miemis, aimed to put into action ideas that challenge censorship, corporate ownership, and other unfree aspects of internet technology. As Rushkoff explained to Alternet's Sarah Jaffe, the event hoped to "reify the 'net values of 1992 back up to 2012."

Douglas Rushkoff's Keynote at SXSW 2010

The event started with "provocations" from participants representing progressiving technology organizations like FreedomBox and Telecomix (videos), in addition to well known speakers like Eli Pariser and Laura Flanders. Afterward, participants organized into small groups discussing issues ranging from the highly technical — mesh networks and coownership of the physical layer — to a proposal to organize hacker spaces in libraries (which was well received by the audience, for, as Rushkoff pointed out, the idea is clear and actionable...

 

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