The Network Nature of the Occupy Movement

by Todd

You might have seen shocking video of a UC Davis police officer pepper-spraying a group of sitting protesters that went viral over the weekend. It’s hard to watch in parts, but one thing that jumped out to me was the sheer number of cameras in use at the most tense moments of the confrontation. From DSLRs to every manner of mobile phone, hundreds of cameras were turned onto the officers as a collective, unblinking eye witness.

It got me thinking about the other types of technology that the Occupy movement are putting to use, and I found a handful of articles talking about this very topic.

Mashable’s post talks about wifi hotspots set up at protest sites, an invention of the Free Network Foundation which has spec’d the components for these hotspots for just shy of $2100 retail. Using a mesh network structure, these hotspots can join up with others like them or run independently, making them neatly scalable. The Foundation has the grand ambition to build these access points across the United States. But what’s even more interesting is their articulation of a technology stack that goes all the way into modifying Linux kernels to provide information networks that embrace freedom of Access, Transmission, Storage, Authentication and Consignment.

Other types of technology are in play as well, from bicycle-powered generators to lightweight blankets to more familiar tools like cellphones. Still other innovations don’t use technology at all, but instead use human-scale hacks like the human microphone to propagate speeches through a crowd despite bans on bullhorns and speakers.

The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom Wikipedia describes the phenomenon of starfish organizations, named after the ability of a starfish to grow a new body from a severed arm. They assert that decentralized and seemingly leaderless organizations spread from ideas and blueprints rather than authority, and that this network model is especially resilient. The starfish model and the theme of the network is at the heart of Occupy and the tools it’s using to make itself known. They’re building a kind of order out of low-complexity and low-cost nodes that don’t depend on any one vendor or even any one tool. They assemble the means to create an order that can be re-built and re-created as needed from locally-available resources.

We live in times that are difficult to understand, but that also breed innovations and a desire to connect that seems unstoppable. Whatever we might think of the Occupy movement, it’s impossible to deny the ingenuity of its members and that it truly is a product of a networked age.