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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Occupy.here: A tiny, self-contained darknet

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Ed. — Occupy.here was supported by Rhizome as part of its 2012 Commissions program, and also received a commission from Triple Canopy in 2013. The project's new website launched yesterday.

Regardless of your feelings about Occupy Wall Street, we can all agree that its genesis was unlikely, to say the least. It appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, in New York's Financial District (of all places). And it continued to exist only because of a lucky break: basing the protests in Zuccotti Park, formerly Liberty Plaza Park, was a fallback plan, following a failed attempt to protest in front of the New York Stock Exchange. It was the unusual rules for Zuccotti—as a Privately Owned Public Space (POPS), it is not bound by the normal city parks curfew, and is required by charter to stay open 24 hours a day—that enabled the encampments to get a foothold. This may have been a lucky break, but one that was earned through years of organizing, cultivating the expertise and tools and networks that allow a movement to grow and sustain itself.  

Occupy.here began two years ago as an experiment for the encampment at Zuccotti Park. It was a wifi router hacked to run OpenWrt Linux (an operating system mostly used for computer networking) and a small "captive portal" website. When users joined the wifi network and attempted to load any URL, they were redirected to http://occupy.here. The web software offered up a simple BBS-style message board providing its users with a space to share messages and files.

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