Jazz Hands, P2P and Direct Democracy

Occupy Wall Street Goes Tech

P2P ComputingMuch of the discussion around Occupy Wall Street has weighed in heavily on the nature, character and origin of the protestors and whether they’ll ever come up with an agenda. A more interesting question, especially for any technologists and would-be futurists is, “What are the systemic changes in our society that are affecting or being affected by the Occupy Wall Street movement?”

Author and activist Douglas Rushkoff has written and spoken extensively about the ways society reacts and responds to the increasing strength and purveyance of corporate power. His well-known books include Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Cyberspace, Life, Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back, and most recently, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. In spite of his position on corporations, his articles on the Occupy Wall Street movement are being featured lately on the CNN website, and they have been received with a lot of interest and some controversy.

Some of Rushkoff’s most incisive remarks are directed at the ways society is being transformed by technology, including the internet and computing culture. He has even proposed that in the future people will not hold traditional jobs and that work as we know it may be obsolete.

Rushkoff’s predictions may be manifesting in the way occupiers are contributing time and effort toward the cause, and in return getting access to food and supplies. There is also an effort to develop a viable alternative currency as well as systems for bartering and exchange. Many of these endeavors are being organized online, and a  few apps have even been created to solve unique problems within the protest movement.

ContactCon

Rushkoff’s work on social transformation has recently culminated in the organization of an event/festival called Contact Conference, also known as ContactCon. Held last week in New York, ContactCon was created to connect techies, hackers, creatives and innovators by presenting them with “provocations” and opportunities to work on solving some of the world’s problems through the power of technology. Members of Occupy Wall Street had a significant presence at this event, and some of the projects that resulted included an Online Foodsharing Program, an Online General Assembly and Crowdsourced Unfunding, which may possibly manifest as a global debt-strike movement. It will be interesting to see if some of these projects attract the kind of funding often associated with traditional startup conferences.

Below is the About statement from the ContactCon website. Ambitious, even for a new tech conference:

Contact is a working festival of innovation where the net’s leading minds and entrepreneurs can connect with the people who are building the social technologies of tomorrow. The net of the future will not be fueled by ads, but by people solving real problems through distributed, peer-to-peer solutions. This is dormant promise of the Internet, finally coming to fruition.

Peer-to-Peer Democracy

Peer-to-peer problem-solving is a major theme that arises again and again in Rushkoff’s writing. While this may be interpreted as just another way of describing collaborative work methods, this ethos draws direct inspiration from peer-to-peer distributed application architecture, or P2P computing, in which tasks or workloads are shared among peers. The best-known example of this was the controversial file-sharing system known as Napster. You can learn more about P2P here, at the P2P Foundation website.

When interpreted in terms of human interactions or as a problem solving methodology, P2P provides a viable alternative to traditional top-down decision-making methods and authoritarian structures. And here is where some believe the best hope for the Occupy Wall Street movement lies. The ways in which occupiers vote on initiatives involves voting through hand gestures in an attempt to reach consensus, and initiatives are “stacked,” in the way computer programmers stack features. Viewed from the outside, the hand gestures make the meetings appear cult-like, but one person’s jazz hands are another person’s peer-to-peer radical, consensual democracy. These odd gestures, it turns out, are direct democracy in action. And so, as some have expressed, the point of the movement is not the ultimate agenda, but the sheer inclusiveness and the fact that a conversation is taking place, and continuing.

A New IT Infrastructure?

This conversation will ultimately extend into cyberspace in ways that are hard to imagine. One of Rushkoff’s recent blog entries on the Contact Conference website asks what a cooperatively owned, peer-to-peer communications infrastructure would look like, and posits that the Free Network Foundation is already working toward this goal. With similar goals as Richard Stallman’s Free Software Foundation, the Free Network Foundation aims to create a global communications network that is free from interference by any corporate or government entity, ensuring that information is a right and not just a privilege. And they’ve already made inroads toward creating an independent IT infrastructure. The Free Network Foundation’s “Freedom Towers” already provide internet to some Occupy Wall Street gatherings, with the goal of creating a Virtual Private Network between occupation camps.

The implications behind the type of organizing taking place within and around the Occupy Wall Street protests stretch the bounds of imagination, but their efforts toward social justice through alternative forms of technology may yet prove to be their most fertile ground. As Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf has observed, the ability for technology to amplify and facilitate the spread of new ideas means that change has the potential to happen more quickly than one may anticipate. Occupy the URL is just one example of an online protest effort that is quickly gaining traction.

We’ll be following the conversation and waiting to see if this proves to be more than just a brave utopian experiment and whether the occupiers succeed in attracting enough tech talent to create new and successful online venues for direct democracy. In the meantime, let’s hope Occupy Oakland manages to avoid any more run-ins with the police.

 [Flickr Photo Credit: US Mission Geneva]