[linux-elitists] [>Htech] Building The Underground Computer Railroad (fwd)

Eugen Leitl eugen@leitl.org
Tue Sep 24 07:04:26 PDT 2002

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Date: Tue, 24 Sep 2002 09:54:59 -0400
From: Sabine Atkins <sabine@posthuman.com>
Reply-To: transhumantech@yahoogroups.com
To: transhumantech <transhumantech@yahoogroups.com>
Subject: [>Htech] Building The Underground Computer Railroad

Building the underground computer railroad
Anti-globalization activists in Oakland, Calif., are recycling old machines, 
loading them with free software and shipping them off to Ecuador.

- - - - - - - - - - - -
By Farhad Manjoo

Sept. 23, 2002  |  OAKLAND, Calif. -- It's surprisingly easy to build a 
computer. "There's only like seven or eight parts in a PC," Eddie Nix says as we 
stand in the cavernous warehouse of a computer recycling center in Oakland, 
Calif. We're surrounded by waist-high stacks of unwanted computers, but Nix 
insists that the systems only look like they're dead -- they can easily be 
resurrected, he says, and put to good use.

Wearing combat boots and a T-shirt emblazoned with a large skull and crossbones, 
Nix looks more like a biker than your stereotypical computer geek. He pulls out 
a "box" -- essentially a computer with all of the parts removed -- from a pile 
of old machines and sets it on a nearby worktable. "They have all sorts of 
people coming in here," Nix says of the warehouse, the Alameda County Computer 
Resource Center (ACCRC). "Some people are from drug rehab programs, from 
wherever -- and they can have you making computers in a day." He pops open the 
box and gathers all the necessary parts -- memory chips, a hard drive, a video 
card, a keyboard and a mouse. In less than a minute, Nix fits all the pieces 
into the machine and hits the start button.

It's a sunny Saturday afternoon in September, and Nix is here on behalf of the 
Independent Media Center, a loose affiliation of grass-roots journalists who 
specialize in staging anti-globalization protests at international conferences 
devoted to "free trade." In the run-up to the next meeting of delegates to the 
Free Trade Area of the Americas, which will be held in Ecuador in late October, 
Nix and a handful of others have spent weeks turning unwanted computer parts 
donated to the ACCRC into working machines that they plan to use in their 
protest. Other volunteers are doing the same thing at Free Geek, a recycling 
center in Portland, Ore., and a group in Los Angeles is helping out as well. 
Together, the geek activists aim to build about 300 Linux machines, which 
they'll stuff into a shipping container and send down to Ecuador before the protest.

People at the Independent Media Center pride themselves on the decentralized 
nature of their organization. There are no actual, official "leaders" -- but I'm 
here to see Evan Henshaw-Plath, who's the main force behind the Ecuador project. 
Henshaw-Plath is a 25-year-old programmer who once founded a dot-com and now 
runs a dot-net: protest.net, a calendar site used by various groups to schedule 
their demonstrations. During the past year, he's also spent a lot of his time 
with activists in South America, helping them set up computer labs, networks and 
Web sites, all in an attempt to stymie what he sees as the formidable, and 
growing, influence of various international trade organizations in the region. 
During one of his visits, he met with some of the groups planning to protest at 
the FTAA meeting and had an epiphany.

Ever since the huge anti-World Trade Organization protest in Seattle in 1999, 
where the IMC got its start, many of the world's trade meetings have featured 
chanting, puppet-carrying anti-globalization activists, supported by a cadre of 
"journalist-activists" from Indymedia. But at most of the protests so far, says 
Henshaw-Plath, the activists who come in with their own equipment usually took 
their computers with them when they went back home after the demonstration was over.

"What we haven't been able to pull off is getting a large number of computers to 
a large part of the society that's at the center of these issues," says 
Henshaw-Plath, "and that's when we thought about shipping them computers."

After October's protest, the 300 computers that are being shipped to Ecuador 
will stay there; some will be used in Quito, the capital city, where activists 
will also set up a citywide wireless network, but many will be sent to various 
towns and villages all over the region. "It's interesting because on some level 
you might say these people don't need computers -- they need clean water, 
housing and some sort of economic base that's not exploited," Henshaw-Plath 
says. "But we're saying that giving computers to the right people, that's the 
tool to get that social change."

It's a tool that simply wasn't available as recently as five years ago, he says. 
One fortunate corollary to Moore's Law -- the hallowed business proposition that 
predicts that new microprocessors double in power every 18 months -- is that old 
computers, too, get better and better, but, because they're technically 
"obsolete," they're dirt-cheap, too. Thanks to this pace of innovation, there's 
a glut, these days, of old machines that rich societies don't know what to do 
with -- machines that poor societies could make use of.

The pace of computer obsolescence has been in effect for decades, but more 
recently, the thriving growth of the free software and open-source software 
developer communities means there is now a steadily growing body of software 
applications that are also free. The rise of wireless networking also means that 
the computers can easily be connected together in regions that don't have a 
solid communications infrastructure. The foundation for a tech-aided revolution 
is in place, says Henshaw-Plath; all that's needed is people to do the work, and 
that's where he and others at the ACCRC come in.

The handful of geek volunteers gathered together at the ACCRC are all dressed 
casually, in shorts and sandals and T-shirts, and some of them are covered with 
the grime that comes from working long hours in a warehouse. Many of these 
people pop in and out of the job, assembling several computers for a few hours 
and then leaving; but others, like Henshaw-Plath and Nix, have been at this for 
weeks, nonstop, and they plan to go for at least a week more.

The ACCRC is divided into two sections -- a small workspace where computers are 
assembled, and a giant warehouse where old computers are dropped off, and where 
volunteers, working with the care of archaeologists on a dig, plunder the 
machines for their jewels. The thing most of us refer to as a "computer" -- the 
big tower that sits under our desks, humming softly as it controls our lives -- 
is composed of dozens of smaller parts of varying degrees of value. There's gold 
and other valuable metals in a computer, but there are also toxic substances; a 
CRT computer monitor has as much as five pounds of lead in it.

Much of what comes into the ACCRC and other computer recycling centers is sent 
to third-party processors who turn the stuff into usable material. Oso Martin, 
the executive director of Free Geek, in Portland, says that "about half of what 
we take in is junk. We test any of the stuff that we know is reusable, and then 
we have volunteers teach other volunteers how to build machines from it."

Reverend Phil Sano, Free Geek's volunteer coordinator, says that all sorts of 
people come to Free Geek to learn how to build machines -- from teenagers to 
senior citizens. (Sano, who's 25, is an ordained minister in the Universal Life 
Church. After he and his friends once collectively pondered "the meaninglessness 
of titles," Sano wrote to the church, "and they ended up ordaining me on the 
spot.") People come to Free Geek because they want to "remove the mystery" of 
how computers work, Sano says. "And that's the thing that prevents many people 
from interacting with computers, that mystery. It's what keeps them on that side 
of the digital divide." After a volunteer has assembled five computers, or 
"Freek Boxes," he gets to take the sixth one home.

When you build a machine out of old parts, though, problems are certain to crop 
up. The computer that Nix built in front of me, for example, doesn't show any 
signs of life when he attempts to boot it up -- the screen is blank.

"Must be a bad video card," Nix smiles, and goes off to find a new one. A minute 
later, he's back with a new card, and, after searching for the right screwdriver 
for a minute, he fits the card into place.

He starts up the computer, looks at the screen ... still nothing.

"Alex," he yells to someone walking by, "where's a stash of semireliable video 

"There aren't any, man," says Alex.

"Great," says Nix. "Here's Mr. Salon coming to see our project and we don't have 
any video cards."

During the weeks they've been at this, the IMC people have become used to such 
hassles. Depending on the delivery cycle of old machines, some days they're 
flush with good equipment -- working video cards, systems with fast processors 
-- and other days there's nothing left. "The trick," says Henshaw-Plath, "is to 
look at a pile of machines and pick the good one." If all goes well, you can 
build a computer in 15 minutes -- spend any more time than that and you better 
be building a great machine, something with a very fast processor or video 
editing capabilities.

The software part of the project is less hit-and-miss than the hardware. The 
activists are using Mandrake Linux with installation scripts provided by Free 
Geek, which makes the whole thing rather foolproof -- it's the kind of 
pop-in-a-CD, point-and-click thing a 10-year-old could do. Or a 60-year-old, for 
that matter. The average volunteer can build about 10 computers in a day, 
Henshaw-Plath says; people with lots of experience and some luck can build as 
many as 25.

If you just look at their specifications, the systems the activists are building 
here seem almost worthless, Pentium 100-class machines with about a gigabyte of 
hard drive space and 80 megs of RAM. The sort of computer that went for 
thousands in 1996, but that wouldn't fetch $50 on eBay today.

But if you wipe Windows off these systems and replace it with a Linux-based 
operating system, and if you just plan to use them for the Web and e-mail, they 
can be quite useful, says Henshaw-Plath.

In the remote villages of South America, "all they need computers for is 
communication," says Henshaw-Plath. "They'll use it mostly for e-mail -- and 
it's not e-mailing someone far off, it's just someone in the next village. They 
only need some way to communicate between the two of them that will allow them 
to coordinate and articulate strategies for social change."

For the Amazonian villages where there's no electricity or where phone lines are 
scarce, the activists plan to set up free computer labs in the nearby cities. 
Many cities already have commercial Internet cafes, but they cost about a dollar 
per hour of use, Henshaw-Plath says, which is about a day's wage for most of the 

The IMC activists plan to ship off these computers to Guayaquil, Ecuador's main 
port city, by the end of September. Because none of the computers are being sold 
in Ecuador, and because they're being transferred from an American nonprofit to 
an Ecuadorian one, the activists won't be charged any international shipping 
duties on the computers. "It's what you call real free trade," says Eddie Nix.

If it all works out, they say, this will be only the first of many international 
computer donations. Henshaw-Plath says he has plans to send machines to 
Brazilian landless peasants, and to people in Argentina hurt by that country's 
economic meltdown.

"In Argentina, which was once a poster child for IMF policies, the banking 
system has been shut down," he says. "There's a lot of people who are upset at 
banks -- and they've occupied them and kicked the bankers out and turned them 
into social centers. We'll be setting up free media labs that people can use in 
these occupied banks."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Sabine Atkins,

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