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<nettime> Aliza Dichter: Radical Techies go to Camp

bwo Steve Cisler <>

Radical Techies Go To Camp
By Aliza Dichter, AlterNet
August 9, 2002

Editor's Note: This article was commissioned, in part, by John Sellers,
Executive Director of the Ruckus Society. Aliza Dichter attended the camp
as a facilitator.

"Change your passwords when you leave here," warned Cindy Cohn of the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, "I can't say it enough."

"Here" was a 350-acre wildlife preserve in the Northern California hills,
buzzing with more than 60 networked computers, a multimedia production
studio and wireless broadband subnets connecting laptops across the woods
and fields. This was the

http// Ruckus Society's nine-day Tech ToolBox Action Camp
and there was a pretty good chance the Feds were listening in on all the
digital noise coming from this temporary community of open-source
programmers, corporate-accountability activists, community organizers,
network administrators, Web producers, microradio broadcasters, human
rights campaigners, environmentalists, anti-capitalists, videographers and

More than a few of these campers are regularly detained at airports,
arrested at protests and put on FBI lists by a U.S. government that
increasingly redefines dissent as terrorism.

Cohn was leading a workshop on "Internet Activism and the Law," one of
more than 50 planned workshops on topics from surveillance to setting up a
Linux mail server. Groups sat in the grass to look over walkie-talkies and
radio scanners or learned skills for consensus procedure; they gathered in
barns to write Web programs, and discussed ways to transform
advertisements or tapes of network news shows into counter-propaganda.

At this electronic wilderness camp, where the signs at the Porto-potties
reminded you to wash your hands in the buckets and hand-pumps, you could
attend a training on secure collaboration led by facilitators in Israel,
broadcast live into the computer lab over an website.

Yet, despite the heady schedule, this was first and foremost a social
event. Known mostly for training activists to form blockades, hang banners
from buildings and non-violently deal with very unhappy police officers,
the Ruckus organizers understand that the strength and success of their
camps is in what happens in between the scheduled sessions.  According to
camp coordinator Allen Gunn, the driving vision for this project was to
create gathering space for passionate political people, geeks and
non-geeks, to lay the groundwork for collaborations and solidarity by
connecting faces with email addresses and chat-room tags.  "We pitched it
as a party, knowing full well that massive knowledge transfer would be an
unavoidable by-product."

The time to sit together under the trees helped launch and advance
powerful working relationships throughout the week. A few examples:  
organizers from Canada, the U.S. and Latin America met to strategize
against the FTAA/ALCA (the "Free Trade Area of the Americas," an
international business treaty); media democracy and labor activists
plotted a multi-tiered campaign against radio and advertising behemoth
Clear Channel; independent media producers teamed up to launch a
resource-sharing and content-distribution group; and a core of technical
infrastructure organizations formed the seeds of an international Tech

Said Gunn, "The most important hardware resources we provided were 4'x8'
whiteboards built from shower stall siding. Those were the blank canvasses
on which folks painted pictures of learning, exchange and radical

Gunn and those who worked with him wanted to provide blank canvasses, not
textbooks. Ruckus brought in 25-30 volunteers to take care of the nearly
200 participants. But while the logistical bases were well covered, the 55
invited facilitators, including myself, discovered a conspicuous lack of
structure, including many sessions with no designated trainer, and
schedules and locations determined at the last minute.

Written on a giant whiteboard outside the room known as Mission Control,
the schedule was in constant flux as workshops were redefined or
cancelled. For more than a third of the camp time there were no planned
workshops, but rather open time for people to share skills, strategies or
stories. This was conference-planning by chaos theory.

"I was initially struck by the organizers' emphasis on having a good time
rather than on accomplishing something concrete," recalled Ronit Avni, a
program associate for Witness, "… and I think it was entirely

Avni was part of a team that came together to teach the "Digital
Witnessing" course, a series of trainings on video production for advocacy
and organizing. This was a collaboration between groups that had never met
or worked together -- Witness (helps activists worldwide use video to
document human rights abuses), Amazon Watch (equips and trains Amazonian
indigenous groups to use media to protect their environment) and Third
World Majority (grassroots organizing through media-making in
disenfranchised U.S. communities) -- and the experience was inspirational
for the facilitators as well as their students.

For Thenmozhi Soundararajan of Third World Majority, "It was a magical
moment when the theory of our joint work was being weaved into a single
framework as we were literally teaching from the seat of our pants. For me
it was that pivotal click … it was that understanding that story and its
place in the movement is that essential lever for moving people from
individual experience to collective action."

Investigating the Power Grid

It was significant that the Digital Witnessing training was entirely
woman-led. Camp organizers had made it a priority to push non-male
leadership throughout the camp, recognizing the forces of sexism and male
domination in technology fields as well as in activist circles.  Both men
and women expressed appreciation for women-led tech workshops and sessions
such as the "Linux Ladies Lounge" became vital safe spaces for learning in
exclusively non-male settings.

But this also placed a burden on the few highly technical women at the

"Somehow we all felt the need to work harder, give more workshops, attend
more open forums, and do more one-on-ones -- simply because we know that
for other women having women as teachers is often more empowering," noted
Megan Z., a systems administrator from and who arrived at camp via a 28-hour bus ride from
British Columbia.

Making sure women were represented as technical experts wasn't, of course,
enough. At a 50-60 person Gender and Technology meeting on one of the last
nights, women told stories of being shut out of high-tech conversations or
sexualized for their skills, and people who identified as "genderqueer"
spoke of feeling constantly excluded for not fitting into the male/female
binary boxes.

For radical techies and white-majority "global justice" activists, there
is a growing awareness of being even further behind on some of the most
urgent and undeveloped questions and challenges, those around race and
class. Race was one of the dominant themes of informal discussion at camp,
echoing current conversations elsewhere among the folks who consider
themselves allies in struggles against oppression, injustice and racism,
yet don't know how to confront their own issues of exclusion, privilege
and white-dominance and the lack of trusting multicultural relationships.

Notes Leda Dederich, a Web developer and community organizer who
coordinated the Independent Media track at the camp, "We are in the baby
stages of beginning to address these issues [beginning with] the simple
honesty of looking at our struggles for social justice and acknowledging
who continues to get left out of the conversation, and especially out of
the leadership."

Our efforts to avoid repeating the same power imbalances we want to
challenge usually bring into sharp relief the ways in which we also often
fail. Fully aware of the neocolonization that has the rich nations of the
North feeding on the poor of the Global South, camp organizers made it a
priority to bring in participants from Uruguay, Brazil, Ecuador and
Mexico. But what about making more space for people from the U.S. domestic
"global south" -- the communities of color that are locked out of equal
education and jobs and locked up in prisons and projects?

"At first I was really struck by the severity of seeing how white the camp
was," recalled media democracy activist and scholar Seeta Peña
Gangadharan. "But I left there being far more optimistic about people
wanting to work together on issues of race."

Gangadharan has been working with and around social-change groups and
independent media for the past six years and sees this as a historic shift
for the U.S. activist community that has blossomed since the 1999 World
Trade Organization protests in Seattle.

It was a sentiment echoed by some of the other people of color at the

"I was generally surprised by the outward willingness of some of the
participants to confront issues of racial and gender privilege,"  
reflected Marco Palma, a Los Angeles-based organizer with Youth Organizing
Communities. "It was refreshing, but also perplexing because of the very
visible Digital Divide which manifested itself in many ways at the Camp."

One of the clearest lessons that emerges from the open space to have
discussions and build relationships is how essential it is to create these
kinds of opportunities. It's well known that the real business of
corporations and politicians often takes place on the golf course or at
Washington, D.C. cocktail parties.

In fact, less than one month after the Tech Camp, another group was
frolicking and strategizing nearby in the Sonoma hills -- Bohemian Grove, the infamous
men-only secret gathering for some 2,000 of the country's richest and most
powerful: CEOs, presidents, military generals and global policy-makers. If
(as some say) Bohemian Grove is an orgy of speeches, partying and pagan
rituals, the Tech ToolBox Action Camp was a festival of open-source
engineering, antenna-building and fervent, intimate conversations.

Antenna building? Of course. Antennas were popping up everywhere at the
Ruckus camp -- the satellite dish on top of the old barn provided
high-speed Internet, solar-powered microradio stations broadcast
interviews and economic-rights jingles, Pringles cans were transformed
into wireless hubs to spread free Internet and a
FM broadcast tower was built from a 6-foot PVC pipe with a bicycle light
on top.

In this time of the communications counter-revolution, as telecoms pave
the Internet to put up shopping malls (the model of killing the Web's
biodiversity does apply), with radio and TV almost totally monopolized,
when Ashcroft's new laws and emerging technologies are combining to give
government more power than ever to listen in, it makes sense that
activists would turn to the airwaves as one way to seize communication
space outside of corporate or government control.

And yes, the Feds probably were listening. Cindy Cohn urges activists to
take advantage of simple new encryption systems and use free and open
source software, to protect their own work and also the work of all
activists. "If lots of people are using encryption, the use of it by the
people who really need it is less easy to pinpoint," she says.

If the Ruckus campers are one vanguard of a growing global resistance to
corporate and government exploitation of labor, communities, environment
and war, they also need to be on the front lines of protecting and
advancing the tools for free and radical communication.

Camp participant Inez Sunwoo is taking her new shortwave radio skills to
the streets to invite people to make free broadcasts about the U.S. Not In
Our Name peace campaign. "I was seeking to understand the ways in which
humanity and technology intersect, and the Ruckus camp provided the space
for me to accept technology as a positive tool by first routing out
intention. I was, am inspired."

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