Dan Phiffer, a New York-based web designer and member of art and technology collective, Future Archaeology, is one of the ten recipients of the Rhizome Commission Program Grants for 2012, which were announced on July 16, to continue his work on Occupy.here. Rhizome, for those who may not know, is a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to new art practices engaging technology. Occupy.here uses a wifi router to create a network for discussion for only a locale audience. By bypassing the traditional internet, Phiffer is working to make a free, open, unregulated and community based platform for exchange.
I had seen Phiffer’s work at the Activist Technology Demo Day at Eyebeam, as well at FEAST Brooklyn early this year. Having seen other Occupy groups dealing with issues of freedom online, like Free the Network, I wanted to talk to Phiffer more about his work. Although Phiffer was busy traveling, he agreed to answer some questions about Occupy.here over e-mail.
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Ben Valentine: Tell me about yourself and what led you to make Occupy.here?
Dan Phiffer: Last fall, I was visiting Zuccotti Park [during Occupy Wall Street] pretty regularly, and I had some great experiences talking to random people I met there. People I might see on the subway, but would never carry on a conversation with. I’d take an early morning J train to hang out in the park and chat with people as they woke up, and then head to Midtown where I work (at MoMA, in the digital media department).
Mostly I build websites for a living, and I’d been doing some other projects that involved hacked wifi routers. Occupy.here was a natural extension of stuff I’d been working on. It was meant to be a kind of proxy for not being able to stay at the park all day. I wrote the simplest possible discussion board I could and left it running on a wifi router I’d plugged into a power generator. I hoped it might complement the spoken, synchronous conversations I was having in the park with typed, asynchronous ones.
BV: What happened on Occupy.here while it was installed in Zuccotti Park?
DP: It didn’t really catch on. In each of my tests my timing was really bad, in a matter of days each of my first three attempts were undermined by rain, police and then by unsympathetic building workers, respectively. For the span of time those first routers were active — in Zuccotti Park and at the atrium at 60 Wall Street — not a single person spontaneously logged on and posted a message.
The last router I set up at 60 Wall Street was the only one I managed to recover. I know for certain nobody used that one while it was powered on. But it’s easy for me to understand why nobody would take notice, these networks are invisible unless you’re looking down at your phone. Whenever I’d go downtown to check in on them I’d find myself distracted by meetings, conversations, demonstrations in the street — I’d just feel this constant overstimulation by the physical experience of being there.
Now that the encampments have dispersed, I’m interested in how this next phase of Occupy.here might allow those who were involved, and those who were more casually interested in the Occupy phenomenon, to regain that sense of shared awareness, but in a way that’s more distributed and situated within their everyday lives.
BV: Can you elaborate on what Occupy.here is exactly?
DP: Occupy.here is a discussion forum and file sharing website designed around a single wifi router running OpenWrt Linux. It’s social software that doesn’t need an internet to function. The wifi router doesn’t require a password but operates as a captive portal, redirecting you to a single website, “occupy.here” where you can anonymously write messages and share photos or videos. All this is meant to connect you to others who are physically nearby rather than with the people who would typically make it onto your contact list. The project started as a kind of intranet for the occupiers, but once Zuccotti Park got cleared I started focusing on building it up as a network of affiliated sites.
The individual wifi nodes are not entirely autonomous. An important feature is that users who visit a particular node download a copy of the database in the background when they login. This makes losing the hardware less dangerous and if a user connects to another Occupy.here location, their backup is merged into the other router’s database. It’s a bit like how pollination works, where users play the part of honey bees. But all this is still theoretical — there aren’t any active wifi routers you could go visit right now. (But soon there will be!)
BV: Some technologists believe in an utopian internet; a place of perfect democracy, equality, information and sharing, what do you think about our current internet and what might Occupy.here offer to our current system?
DP: It’s remarkable that the internet is as close as it is to that utopian vision. But it’s certainly imperfect and contingent on corporate and government good will. The big lesson of the SOPA/PIPA battle is that an open internet is something we have to continue fighting for. One could easily mistake occupy.here as a kind of Mad Max attempt at rebuilding a network exempt from those constraints, but it’s not meant to be any kind of replacement for the internet. Occupy.here is more about a human scale experience, about reaching the neighbor downstairs or the stranger who happens by.
BV: Are there any projects in particular that inspired you to make Occupy.here?
DP: Apart from the Occupy movement itself, the biggest influence was from a pseudonymous hacker known as “why the lucky stiff.” He’s no longer posting under that name (in 2009 he disappeared and deleted everything he’d posted online), but for a time he was really prolific and wrote some amazing software.
He ran a service called Hoodwink’d that let you post secret comments on blogs, invisible to everyone but those who’d installed his browser extension. It relied on an alternative DNS system that let you freely register almost any domain you could think of. For example, I think he ran a blog at http://____.___/ and other people registered domains like _.defunkt and ☠.d.
In that spirit, the “occupy.here” URL was meant to suggest to users that they’re not on the “actual internet” through using an unusual URL. However, companies will soon pay ICANN $25,000/year for the privilege of maintaining a .google or .apple top-level domain registry, which seems to me like a spectacular waste of money. And indeed, Google has applied to control .here registrations along with 100 others like .cloud and .search.
BV: What will the Rhizome grant allow you to do — what is next?
DP: The Rhizome commission funds will go toward buying an initial set of wifi routers I’ll be installing throughout New York City. I’m looking for spaces that are open to the public and free to access. I’m also planning to offer some introductory workshops covering the technologies used to build Occupy.here. Ultimately I’d like to see new nodes begin to appear spontaneously, but the software and documentation is not quite there yet.
I’m still not sure what the project might look like with a dozen or more nodes. I’ve tweaked it quite a bit after observing individual users, but there’s stuff I won’t understand until there are many more people using it.
BV: Anything else you’d like to add?
DP: I’ve been fortunate to have had help from other people, like Isaac Wilder, Sean McIntyre and others from the Free Network Foundation. A computer science student from Germany contributed some security improvements on GitHub. This is all really essential as an open source project, and I’m hoping more people will contribute.