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How Free Software Activists are Hacking Occupy's Source Code

BY Nick Judd | Monday, September 17 2012

Can the tools used to organize a protest change protest culture? Photo: PaulSteinJC / Flickr

As the sun started to set on Sunday, the Occupy Wall Street pop-up campus in Foley Square was settling into a familiar festival of non-normative behavior.

A person with a man's body but more feminine makeup and sparkling pink half-shirt, worn open, twirled frenetically in time to drumming from a corps of musicians who had set up on a nearby swath of lawn. People typed with dutiful precision on a row of typewriters set up atop small plastic stools. Another man stood on the edge of the park wearing an American flag-style t-shirt and a Captain America shield on his back. After all, this was a celebration of the first anniversary of Occupy, which has a near-absolute inclusivity that people in the movement simultaneously demand of themselves and blame for what many call a near-total organizational collapse.

A few yards away, in the shadow of the Supreme Court building, Drew Hornbein finished a hand-rolled cigarette. Hornbein, 25, is a member of Occupy's technology team, a decentralized group with maybe a dozen people at its core in New York and a far larger network spread across the world. During big event days, like the protests that were to come on Monday, the techies turn out just like other occupiers. On other days, though, they turn their attention away from individual events and work on their own cause: technology tools for Occupy, built in a way that fits with Occupy's principles. They've been doing this since shortly after the occupation began one year ago Monday. And they've had a busy year.

"TechOps," as the New York contingent of web-developing occupiers call themselves, built and maintained the website for the Sept. 17 anniversary events. They put together a whole host of other underlying technical infrastructure, like email blast lists and listservs. TechOps-built database software sits behind a system to match people who needed a place to stay during the demonstrations with people who had space to offer.

"It's pretty incredible what we have, considering we have one or two system admins, we have a few developers, we have a few designers, we have a few UX people," said Hornbein, who has been involved with Occupy's technology needs going all the way back to the New York City General Assembly's first website.

He was describing what has become a broad suite of web tools built specifically for Occupy activists. Using their own flavor of WordPress' multi-site functionality, TechOps can facilitate sites like S17NYC.org and allow individual movement groups to maintain their own web presences themselves. Tools handle listservs and email blast lists. Each group gets its own wiki. There's a classifieds system and a collaborative note-taking tool that's meant as an alternative to Google Docs. A relationship management system collects email signups and manages databases of volunteers and organizers. After a long year of work, a distinctly Occupy technological infrastructure is starting to take shape.

Since last September, the technologists behind these tools have been walking a tightrope stretched between pragmatism on one side and a desire to stick to their ideals on the other — something that many people say Occupy as a broader movement has been unable to do.

In a forthcoming paper in the journal Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies, sociology professor Zeynep Tufekci and journalism professor Daniel Kreiss argue that Occupy's focus on "being the change" has turned out to be inherently self-defeating. In other words, they argue that Occupy's slavish devotion to first principles, and especially principles of openness, participatory decision-making, and inclusion, are incompatible with building a functional organization that can affect political change.

They're not the only ones to suggest that Occupy's rallies and sign-waving have lost some of their meaning, that the vitality of the movement has come and gone, and that Occupy's focus on using its own example as fodder for its political activism has meant instead that it has eaten itself alive.

And that's what makes TechOps, humming away behind the scenes, so interesting. As early on as last November, a growing group of technologists decided that they would help the Occupy movement by providing the kinds of modern tools that 21st-century political advocacy now seems to require. But they would do it the way the rest of Occupy does things, with a focus on "being the change," so to speak.

For TechOps, working in an Occupy-compatible fashion meant working, as often as possible, strictly with software that is available to anyone to download, examine, modify, re-use and share. They made a few concessions here and there, like helping to set up Google Apps accounts for working groups rather than refusing to work with a platform that wasn't truly open. But they have been working all the time towards building out and refining a suite of online organizing tools that conform to Occupy's principles.

This is a highly imperfect project that suffers many of the same problems that plague other open-source efforts. For example, Hornbein's colleague, open-source advocate Devin Balkind, was enthusiastic last November about creating a system based on CiviCRM, free volunteer management software, to build out databases of volunteers and organizers for the movement to use. Months later, it's in use here and there — for example, their flavor of CiviCRM powers mass emailings and that housing-match system — but the whole Tech Ops team will admit that CiviCRM is notoriously difficult to use.

Some people within Occupy who need tech tools are using other alternatives, like Salsa, which is on offer to occupiers at no cost. One could argue that TechOps might have a more impressive array of products to show for itself had it, for example, elected to build on top of Salsa instead of building a system that can be replicated from scratch on other hardware. Salsa is, after all, free, and the people who offer it express solidarity with Occupy. Another occupier involved in Occupy's technology groused to me that colleagues are applauding themselves for doing things after days of work with their free tools that take one or two hours to do on a platform like Salsa.

But even in the technology of Occupy, vocabulary is loaded with political meaning. Programmers would say that "free," in the case of Salsa, is free as in beer, but not free as in speech. By outsourcing ownership of the servers and the source code to another group, occupiers using Salsa have lost some degree of control over their technology, the argument goes, and by extension part of their freedom — even if that freedom is given over to people who are at least to some degree fellow travelers. It's the same type of ideology-as-reasoning that occupiers have applied to decisions as varied as whether or not to apply for permits to host their rallies or, in earlier days, what kind of bank should hold the general assembly's money — only in this case, that reasoning extends to software.

Perhaps unlike issues of meeting structure or finance, building Occupy-friendly software has proven to be easier. It is, after all, less of a heavy lift to code up a WordPress website than it is to create an alternative financial system. The open-source software industry has been working with a different business model for years, something Hornbein says could be inspiration for Occupy itself.

"Without compensation," Hornbein told me, "you have to believe in what you're working on. I believe in what I'm working on, so I'm going to dedicate a lot of time and energy to it. And this is what the open source movement has taught the world, is your idea that people will only do things because of money is totally wrong."

Free the software?

Free software as a cause is part of what brought Devin Balkind into Occupy. Balkind works on something called the Sarapis Foundation, which promotes what Balkind calls "free, libre, and open source" software, or FLO. When I met him last November, he explained to me that he was seeking to bring the gospel of FLO to Occupy. Many people have stood up at one of the now-defunct spokescouncil meetings or general assemblies and tried to sway occupiers to one cause or another, and some have succeeded. TechOps has forged their cause into their movement's tools.

Perhaps without entirely realizing it, the people who are using the open-source tools built by TechOps are being guided down a very specific political track, one whose rails were set down in the early 1980s by a technologist named Richard M. Stallman. Stallman is the founder of the Free Software Foundation and a leader in the movement for free software, which is having a greater impact on Occupy than many occupiers might suspect.

The night before the Foley Square festival, I caught up with several of the TechOps volunteers at an entirely different kind of celebration. They were at Software Freedom Day, where a few dozen free-software advocates were gathering to celebrate their own ideology over beer and snacks. Held at the headquarters of New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program, the first table that attendees passed was full of CDs with various flavors of Linux, the free operating system. ITP had set up a computer at one end of the room with a giant monitor and an open instance of Processing, a programming environment, on the assumption that people would entertain one another by writing simple programs. At least one attendee did, summoning what looked like the Mario character from the Super Mario games and a giant, hovering ghost to terrorize him. If it sounds like geek central, that's because it was.

Repeatedly discussed that night were Stallman's "Four Freedoms." (Stallman being a programmer, they are numbered zero through three.) The freedoms outline the idea that what one can do with a computer program is just as important as what one actually does.

"Teaching children to use Windows is like teaching them to smoke tobacco—in a world where only one company sells tobacco," Stallman wrote, in 2008, critiquing the One Laptop Per Child Project's decision at the time to switch to Windows from the free Linux operating system. "Like any addictive drug, it inculcates a harmful dependency. (Bill Gates made this comparison in a 1998 issue of Fortune Magazine.) No wonder Microsoft offers the first dose to children at a low price. Microsoft aims to teach poor children this dependency so they can smoke Windows for their whole lives. I don’t think governments or schools should support that aim."

If this sounds very similar to Occupy Wall Street language about free markets or debt, that's because it is. And these principles, or toned-down variations thereof, underpin the software that powers many of the Internet's biggest businesses. Software Freedom Day belongs to a community whose members largely agree with these ideas, and who have a framework for actualizing their beliefs that goes back 20 years or more. It was because these businesses had access to computers that were truly free — as in beer and speech — that their engineers were able to build precisely the frameworks they needed. This is not gobbledygook in the tech-business world; projects like Open Stack and Open Compute, to extend the reach of open software and hardware to the setups needed to run cloud computing projects, have support from companies like Facebook and Rackspace. How much of that freedom of choice is passed on to the end customer is often a source of consternation for the free-software crowd, but tech titans invest time and energy in keeping quite a bit of it for themselves.

While Occupy looks elsewhere for new or existing ways of building alternative economies, the sharing-centric nature of open source — and more radical ideas about what "free" means and how free an essential service should be — is shaping the websites and other Internet matter that will become part of its digital legacy.

Sitting in lower Manhattan on Sunday, my conversation with Hornbein was interrupted here and there by amplified pleas from nearby Foley Square. ("Tomorrow ... peaceful!" "Nonviolent direct action!") Looking back at the festival of strange behavior that throbbed just a few yards away, I asked him how street protests, political theater and symbolic arrests related to other work that occupiers were doing. There's a large network of discrete but interrelated groups now working under the Occupy banner on their own projects, from attacking the debt industry to protesting the practice of hydrofracking. Many of these groups turn to TechOps to run websites and listservs. If they don't, they might be working with Interoccupy, which provides meetings facilitation services for Occupy groups, and Interoccupy works with TechOps.

These activist groups are working on complex issues through a mix of street-level "direct action" and more strategic efforts, many of which happen thanks to the designers and developers who pitch in to keep servers running and webpages looking pretty.

What, I asked him, do the street marches and drum circles have to do with any of that? How does a technologist working on the infrastructure to keep all of these initiatives, like a newly launched effort to get people to fight their debts instead of repay them, view the political theater on offer that weekend?

"All of this is practice," he told me.

"The way I see it is, we're practicing. How do you run effective actions where you have to organize them in public? How can you have an effective civil disobedient action where you know the police are listening to every aspect of the planning? How do you do that? I think we're learning how to do that," he said. "Tomorrow is going to be a fairly good example."

Enough organizing was taking place on Facebook pages or "private" Google Groups, he explained, that it was more than likely that anyone who wanted to see what the protesters were up to — like the NYPD — had probably had their fill of intelligence. And organizers were aware that this was likely the case.

But it was also practice for operations groups like TechOps, and other groups that coordinate housing, food and other support services. While people may view the Occupy movement, seen as a discrete whole, as a black hole collapsing under the weight of its own ideology, people building the infrastructure say they're finding ways to support that movement in a way compatible with their beliefs. In other words, Hornbein says exactly the opposite is true: it's possible to "be the change" and affect change at the same time. It just takes a while to build up the capacity to do that, and anyway, Occupy has never been one movement with, to resurrect an old phrase, one demand.

"We're practicing how to develop and deploy open-source tools for people and we're getting much better at it in just a year's time," Hornbein said. "And I think that's one of the hardest things for people on the outside, especially those who are deeper into the institutional world, to understand. That's why every month you'll see a new article about how Occupy's dead ... it's because Occupy doesn't matter, Occupy isn't and has never been something. It's a general set of ideas that changes between every single person that interacts with it."

The same way Occupy offers organizers a platform — modified consensus for decision-making, the Occupy name as a brand, tools like the "mic check" both for communicating and disrupting communication — TechOps is building a technology platform that is just as easy for someone with the right skills to appropriate and modify, in the spirit of free software.

Without the central connective tissue of a general assembly, maybe that becomes more important for Occupy going forward. Because if Occupy is connected by technology, and by technology that TechOps has built, then it is connected by technology shaped from the bottom-up to encourage the kinds of interaction that are inherent to Occupy. At least, that's the theory.

"Occupy is, and I would argue, always has been, a networking engine," Hornbein said. "It is networking a nonheirarchical system to allow a decentralized network that allows groups with similar passions to interact and groups that don't realize the overlap. Because our little tagline for this whole weekend is, 'all roads lead to Wall Street.' You can take anyone's pet project, my pet project of the environment, it all comes back to money, and capital, and greed, and people utilizing that to sway politicians and citizens to do bad stuff."

Earlier in our conversation I was asking him if he agreed with that description, of Occupy, post-Zuccotti, as primarily an umbrella term for many different groups, all with different objectives.

"But moving in the same direction," he interrupted me to say. "And I think that's where the technology comes in. We can network."