From free software to street activism
& vice versa: an introduction

by Verdura Obscura (darkveggy) - May 2005

.:. Summary .:.

Contemporary societies have now endorsed computer technology, to the point of turning its use into an attractive social duty. But while some computers power market-economy, other machines remain busy with myriads of software alternatives, counter-initiatives & community offensives. What follows is a quick walk-through some of the cracks in the official computer picture; a surface exploration of the convergence between digital alternatives and political subversives.


> Analog recipes and digital bakery

Computers do not speak anything but binary language; that is, a succession of 0 and 1. Since hardly any human can communicate in such a way, intermediary languages have been developed for programmers to use when creating programs. This human-readable combination of words, punctuation and mathematical expressions is called "source code".

Software and cakes have a lot in common. Both involve a list of instructions to follow, ingredients to mix, and a transformation process to go through. Cooking is about producing and following a recipe, just as programming is about generating and typing a source code. Just like cakes, programs have to be baked too. The process of turning source code into binary form that computers can eat is called "compiling".

Just as cakes can be cooked for you, computer programs often come pre-compiled & ready to run. Fine. But what if the cake was so good you want to bake your own? What if the program was so impressive you want to understand how it works? What it you want to share the cake's recipe with friends? What if the program lacked an important feature you need and feel like adding? You need the recipe; you need the source-code!

> The birth of a hacker revolt

Back in 70s, The Artificial Intelligence Lab from Massachusetts's Institute of Technology gave birth to a digital counter-culture: the hackers'. Hackers [01] enjoyed computer-programming and bypassing limitations by finding clever solutions. Rather than using the operating system [02] that was shipped with the lab's computer, they had crafted their own, and shared the source code with whoever was interested. Their community was based upon the dissemination of software recipes, mutual cooperation, and the belief that "information should be free".

Such sharing dynamics were to be seriously shaken in the early 80s. With new hardware came new software, which one was explicitly forbidden to share. It came without source-code, but with copyright, restrictive licenses & high expenses. Users would be repressed for helping each other by copying; software developers would be banned from cooperating by sharing code; without recipes nor the rights, others wouldn't get an occasion to learn, modify, recompile! This is what proprietary software is about: companies claiming property over knowledge, restricting its access according to their interests; selling expensive cakes, keeping their operation secret, while preventing others from doing them better and sharing them with the rest. Proprietary software is now a commonly spread disease among personal computers, as shows the number of machines running Microsoft Windows.

In 1984, MIT hacker Richard Stallman [03] quit his job, in a refusal to abandon his community practices and ideals. He founded the GNU project [04], aiming at developing an alternative operating system that would be free to use, free to understand, free to copy, free to modify. Copyleft replacing copyright; source-code availability, instead of binary-only. To backup this emerging project, the Free Software Foundation [05] was created, and introduced "copyleft" [06] by issuing the GNU General Public Licence (GNU GPL), a legal trick to prevent illegitimate appropriation of free software by third parties. One has the right to modify GPL licenced-software and distribute his/her modifications, provided they use the same licence, and thus grant the same freedoms to their users; using copyright... to subvert copyright! That was the birth of the free software movement, as a political act of resistance against proprietary software.

The GNU project was met with enthusiasm and quickly grew out of the benevolent participation of a number of individuals across the world. In 1991, a finnish student by the name of Linus Torvalds released the Linux kernel [07]. Put together with already existing GNU software, it resulted in the fruitful combination known as GNU/Linux [08], that was soon to become the fully-featured & powerful operating system which is widely used today. Then, free software was no longer a hacker-exclusive playground, but had become a valuable alternative to proprietary solutions; not only providing good programs, but, most importantly, putting power in the hands of the users, instead of stealing it away from them.

This is what free software is about: a digital revolution that is social before it is technical. Free software grants user-power and flexibility against the tyranny of a profit-making software company: source-code provides the possibility for one to understand and double-check a program for bugs or weak security, fix it accordingly, adapt it to new uses, or improve its quality. Free software demonstrates the efficiency of volunteer association & self-organisation, rather than wage work constraints & hierarchies; it proves the benefits of solidarity and effort mutualisation, rather than opacity and competition: it powers 70% of servers over the Internet [09] and technically defeats closed-source equivalents in most cases, thanks to the involvement of thousands of individuals worldwide. Free software breaks the boundaries between developers and users, rather than having people rely on experts. It is based upon participation, rather than sole consumption: anyone is encouraged to contribute according to his/her skills and wills, by writing documentation, submitting program modifications, doing translations, spreading the word and supporting individuals willing to free their machines from the proprietary.

> When it backfires...

Free software was initiated as both a technical alternative and a political offensive against proprietary software and values. While Richard Stallman and other prominent figures of the movement have maintained that dual commitment over years, it is clear that the subversive potential of free software has consciously been eluded by a number of parties. While large amounts of geek types tend not to show interest in politics, thus passively discarding the militant approach, a new tendency emerged against free software's engaged discourse. The Open Source Initiative [10] was launched by Eric S. Raymond in 1998 to publicly stand against the FSF's leftist tendencies, and set a new label for advertising non-proprietary software - "open-source" -, with a particular focus on business leaders, frightened by the "free software" emblem.

Of course, building market-compliant sex-appeal, to be directed at multinationals, couldn't go without dropping what made free software so special [11]. The "Open Source Definition" logically abandoned all reference to the social & ethical means & motives of free software, not to mention the fight for freedom as a primary aim. Preaching for a peaceful coexistence between free & closed software, "open-source" is also about politics; but its politics are those of pacification, integration, acceptance and promotion of the market rules, with the slight difference of a smarter development model. Free software has often been dismissed as "communist" by its enemies (and by Microsoft in particular) [12]. It might not be that simple. What is very clear, though, is that "open source" pledges capitalism, while free software can be a contribution to something else.

Looking in the opposite direction to the Open Source Initiative is another myriad of individuals, collectives and networks, working at extending free software's political spectrum, merging it with ongoing struggles, aiming to explore the subversive potentials of computing, rather than extinguish them.


> Hierarchy, capitalism & property, among other nastiness

Contemporary societies all rely on hierarchies, as they have done almost exclusively for centuries. Be they called democracies and pretend they grant everyone the same freedoms, rights and duties, they involve a political authority, whose power can override anybody's, provided it has been once approved by the majority. Representative democracy involves letting a board of so-called experts - politicians - deal with issues concerning everybody and take decisions which will affect the whole community, while the intervention of the primarily concerned is restricted to electing a leader every X years. Such a system disempowers everybody but a minority, for it draws away power & responsibility over one's own life from the individual, to be centralised by a collective entity, supposedly defending the interest of the many. Not only does this result in the individual being systematically crushed by the majority, but it also involves allowing a tiny group of people to decide upon laws that will later be enforced on you and me.

Most governments have totally embraced capitalism, dismantling public services and encouraging private companies to make their way through market economy. Defining the maximisation of profits as the priority, capitalism relies on the dynamics of competition and domination, feeds the law of the fittest, and implies a permanent state of war in and outside the economy. Placing the interests of a company above all ethical concerns, capitalism leads to huge dismissals by favouring benefits over employees, supports exploitation by delocalising production lines and has work done nearly for free, commits massacres and uncountable human-right violations while stealing indigenous resources, generates mass precarity through the World Bank & International Monetary Fund, which force developing countries to drop their social rights for incoming money, takes the most prominent part in destroying the environment, and tends to turn anything, being or tendency, into a good, for sale in the global economy.

Can one believe a society to implement equality, when it relies on such mechanisms, and distributes {social,economical,political} power in variable quantities, depending on gender, race, age, class, sexual orientation and many other such dividing categories? However, discrimination, oppression and domination do not just occur inside institutions. They lie within one's social relations, forged by an early acceptation of hierarchy, integration through abidance to social norms, a life-time education to authority, and our very own reserves towards equality.

> Being active programmers of our lives, not passive users

These critiques are nothing new. They have been explored, deepened, publicised, debated and fought about for years, by webs of collectives, individuals, affinity groups and organisations often referred to or self-defined as "radicals", "anti-authoritarians" or "anarchists", whose history is far too long and complex to render in a few words [13]. Some of them are part of international networks such as People's Global Action [14], which actions eventually came to the broad public's attention, throughout previous years' counter-summit demonstrations [15]. Unlike most other political factions, these movements generally attempt to go beyond the mere slogan, by putting their ideals into practice: by confronting the politics they fight against through actions; by coding, compiling and experiencing alternatives to the current social order.

In opposition to vertical-organising, anti-authoritarian movements share a tradition of self-management and assembly: decisions are directly taken by those who are affected by them, without the mediation of a hierarchy. This is about emphasizing individuals' power over their lives, through collective concern and personal responsibility; about working towards consensus, instead of some being silenced by the majority. Despise the common & well-too-spread belief that freedom and equality only require "spontaneity", activist networks have thought and implemented some practical facilitation tools to allow efficient meetings & truly democratic decision-making [16].

In opposition to capitalism, stand quantities of non-profit production and distribution initiatives, be they about books, vegetables or bicycles! The "do it yourself" counter-culture [17] is one of these lively examples: a world-wide and long-lasting movement, successfully opposing the reign of money over culture, by bringing together thousands of independent music labels, radical book publishers and engaged bands, exchanging through fanzines, spreading through mail distribution and peer-to-peer contact, organizing music shows and tours, settled in hundreds of alternative venues, private garages or squatted houses across countries. Against economic discrimination, European activist circles have made widespread use of "prix libre" for their public events' entry fee: a donation instead of a fixed price, for the attendant to adapt his/her contribution to her/his financial situation; no entry prohibition upon money, if one doesn't have any. Among the routes to escape capitalism, is attempting autonomy, by growing food, producing alternative energy, and, possibly, code free?

In putting these alternatives into practice, one requires space, time and energy. Squatting [18] has played a major role in the development of radical-left cultures since the 70s: recycling abandoned buildings allows appropriation of spaces for collective uses; not paying rent reduces the need to work for money, thus liberates time for benevolent activity; collective project-building providing energy and practical experiences of self-management, with its successes, failures, and difficulties; and all in all, allows further autonomy from consumer society. Squatting the empties is a form of direct-action against capitalism, the latter relying on private property. Ownership is a virtual title, which grants the person in possession an absolute and exclusive right over what s/he owns, might s/he not make any use of it at all. Speculation is a fairly common game for owners to play. It involves maintaining houses in an unused state, waiting for prices to higher, while denying access to people in need. In opposition to that, squatting empty properties is about reclaiming abandoned resources for those who can put them to use; it is about placing legitimacy before legality; it is about inverting dominant values, claiming that property belongs to its users, rather than to its entitled owners.

> From hacking property to fighting the proprietary

Computer technology has long been met with skepticism and denial within grass-roots movements, for being central in capitalist development, enforcing government control and serving corporate interests. While this does remains true, tactical use of technology as means of subversive communication has always been part of political activism, as have shown free radio movements from the 80s, performing pirate broadcasts to "reclaim the airwaves", in defense of freedom of speech and independent information. Yippie revolutionary Abbie Hoffman provides yet another example, for being involved in phone phreaking, explaining through underground fanzines how to exploit bugs in phone networks to communicate for free.

In the 90s, activist computer use grew from producing flyers and posters to disseminating content through the Internet, which cyber-utopians & techno-anarchists believed to be a free & independent territory, back then. Not only was early online computing largely mixed with libertarian ideals, but it also supported the first marginal attempts at activist networking. Internet was a big step in bringing together analogical struggles to digital mediums, thanks to its decentralised structure and bidirectional communication. Unlike television, this media was not limited to consuming contents, but provided an easy way to organise and distribute one's own information. However, the encounter that is possibly to be the most fruitful involves two movements or tendencies; one being analogical, the other being digital; anarchism & free software.

Free software and anarchist movements indeed happen to share a number of concerns and practices. Both have the ultimate goal of building a free society, free software focusing on public empowerment through availability of knowledge, anarchism on destroying power structures that prevent their accessibility. Both are about putting back power in the hands of the user: user power over tools s/he uses, user power over the life s/he chooses to run. Thus, both destabilise established power roles, based upon corporate and governmental models. Both advocate solidarity, and rely on cooperation to function: free software development depends upon team-work and collective emulation, just as anarchism requires consensus, mutual help and consideration. Both lead to reconsidering common perception of property: free software flipping copyright upside down with copyleft and claiming that "software should not have owners", anarchists questioning the legitimacy of exclusive ownership and practicing resource sharing through squatting. Both provides working examples of alternative social models, based upon decentralisation, volunteer participation and self-management: free software development is made of hundreds of autonomous clusters organising independently, without a central authority nor any corporate agenda to carry, coordinating willingly, while anarchist organising usually involves similar affinity groups gathering around common concerns, without a hierarchy. Against corporate opacity and elitism, free software functions with transparency, allows everyone to participate, just as a libertarian open-organisation would distribute information and responsibility to all those who would agree.

By getting involved in free software, anti-authoritarians get the opportunity to have their relation to computing shift, from solely tactical considerations to a more exciting option: participating in designing and building operating-systems in a contributive and horizontal fashion, by putting self-management into practice, and having the chance to shape egalitarian uses & applications. The Debian GNU/Linux operaring-system [19], in addition to providing the Anarchist FAQ among its software packages [20], includes anarchists among its developers, some of whom have been debating the political nature of the project as a whole [21]. While free software offers activists a number of possibilities, in terms of secure & community-driven communication & organisational tools (thanks to web portals, self-managed websites aka wikis, mailing-lists), grass-roots politics allow free software enthusiasts to break the bounderies of computing and insert their practices within a broader picture. This opens up new questions, provides new inspiration, and allows learning from the experiences of other struggles.

Over the past few years, individuals from both communities felt they could gain from closer interaction and mutual recognition. From geek parties taking place in squatted communities, to free software powering street action counter-information, a number of initiatives, collectives and movements have emerged out of these hybridations.


> Plug'n'politix: opening access to squats & Internet

In October 2001, a number of groups and individuals gathered in the Egocity squat in Zürich, Switzerland [22], for three days of discussions, debates and practical workshops. This was to be the first "Connect Congress" of the "Plug'n'Politix" network. The experience was renewed in December 2004, hosted by Cyber*Forat [23], a squatted cybercafé located in central Barcelona. Plug'n'Politix [24] allows groups and collectives from all over Europe to share their experiences in running Internet open-access spaces and hacklabs in squatted social-centres or alternative venues. It provides a common channel for information exchange, community building and developing a hybrid mix of anti-authoritarian politics, free software development and activist computer use.

One of the first groups to implement this crossover was ASCII (Amsterdam Subversive Center for Information Interchange) [25], bringing together computer-inclined political activists and free-software hackers. They engaged in squatting actions, filling empty basements with keyboards and wireless signals. Despise evictions, they successfully set-up a public venue providing a computer workspace for local activists, offering free Internet access to visitors seven days a week, as well as using, promoting and teaching free-software. From 1997 onwards, similar initiatives popped up in different corners of Europe: PUSCII in Utrecht [26], LOTEC in Berlin [27], PRINT in Dijon [28], Monte Paradiso in Croatia [29], Cyberpipe in Slovenia [30], Blouk Blouk in Lyon [31]... among others!

Such collectives have largely contributed to raising ethical and practical issues related to technology within radical activist circles. Questioning the use of corporate and proprietary software by groups protesting against the very same type of multinationals producing these programs, they have been working towards integrating computer-related issues to activists' political concerns, introducing free software as an alternative. Considering the digital tools we use as a meaningful political choice, campaigning was extended to bringing awareness to the general public, by encouraging computer users to break their dependency upon Microsoft, and start setting their system free!

While offering curious novices an occasion to give free software a try, open-access spaces often put software's versatility into practice. Not only are they real testing grounds and a good source for user feedback, but they also tend to inspire creative network designs or resource sharing experiments, in efforts to improve overall efficiency and implement ecology [32]. Friendly visitors can generally ask for help in migrating their systems towards free software alternatives, burn a copy of the Debian archive, which some open-access spaces provide officially, or grab a Knoppix, a Dynebolic or an Ubuntu live-CD [33].

Commercial trends keep forcing new hardware down people's throats while dumping yesterday's, that is now ridiculed by the gigahertz race happening everyday. Open-access spaces attempt at breaking the capitalist chain by recycling discarded hardware, putting together deprecated computer parts, and plugging dead boxes back to life. Yet another demonstration of the irrelevance of productivism, when people are told to buy, whereas the trash contains it all; it's the matter of a dumpster to hack, and a handful of free machines to take back!

As computing becomes central, digital illiteracy grows tall. By organising free teaching and skill-sharing workshops to disseminate computer knowledge, hacklabs contribute in fighting the digital divide, looking towards empowering those left-out by new technologies. While officials might also pretend to do so when walking people around supermarket Internet, others prefer to arm people with awareness on the possibilities for governments to use the net to spy, identify and repress.

Open-access spaces are providing social environments for free software users and enthusiasts to meet, exchange and support each other, by merging the tradition of Linux User Groups [34] and squat-cafés. As a result, they act as bidirectional gateways, leading activists to make the switch, and encouraging geek types to discover places they might not have had the opportunity to enter otherwise...

> hackmeetings beyond computing: reality-hacking

While Plug'n'Politix was acting as an inspirational hub in northern parts of Europe, bridges were being built in Italy to allow the transport of hundreds of keyboards behind squatted doors. It began in Firenze, in June 1998 [35], and was restarted each year since: hackers gathering in squatted social centres, for three day festivals of digital counter-culture, anticapitalist free-software, anti-authoritarian skill-shares, peer-to-peer friendship and community building; without sponsors, without entitled organisers; powered by volunteer work from people across the country, coordinated through an open mailing-list and contributing their skills; with a particular focus on meeting people & being sociable; with a joyful general assembly to close the party.

Enthusiasm eventually jumped borders, and the concept quickly caught on in Spain, where a similar movement emerged in 2000, when the first hackmeeting took place in Barcelona's "Les Naus" squatted social centre [36]. Like in Italy, hackmeetings were to become a yearly event. But the most successful aspect of these meetings, besides effectively melting hacker culture and activist practice, was the creation of hacklabs [37] all over the two countries, providing a permanent continuation of the hackmeeting effort, following the idea of "reality hacking". Reality hacking is about exporting the hacker attitude out of the digital sphere it originated from. It is an invitation to embrace life with the ingenious, critical and rebellious spirit emphasized by hacker ethics. Iruña's hackmeeting [38] slogan was "hack your brain"; encouraging geeks to reclaim their intelligence, driving it away from social norms and dominant culture influence, to use it as a subversive tool against alienation & constraints.

The very social nature of southern hackmeetings and their successful mix between technology and politics generated the will to further export the tradition and disseminate its magic outdoors: a European-wide Transnational Hackmeeting (THK) took place in June 2004 at the Monte Paradiso hacklab from Pula, Croatia, in an effort to draw connexions between eastern & western computed dissent [39]. A next encounter should happen by the end of 2006...

> Squatting the Internet & spreading the word

Internet has brought a new dimension to social activism, allowing the coordination of large scale actions that were never seen before. Spread through the net, international calls to decentralised protests sometimes led to hundreds of blockades, demonstrations and miscellaneous civil disobedience actions being carried throughout the world with a common goal, such as those which happened on November 30th, 1998, where thousands blocked the World Trade Organisation in the streets of Seattle. Thanks to an instant dissemination of information, it has been possible to keep track, react, organise emergency solidarity, while the intensification of communication between geographically distant groups has undoubtedly generated emulation, fueled inspiration and facilitated project creation.

Using the Internet as an activist medium requires infrastructures. Before Internet was largely spread among the public, were already running some servers dedicated to hosting webpages and e-mails for groups who could not cope with advertisements, who would require security, and favour trust based upon affinity with administrators to feeding the dot-com phenomena. in Canada, & in Italy, in Spain or in the US were some of the first, soon to be followed by a number of others: & in Germany, in Spain, & in Italy, & in the US...

Thanks to free software, it is possible to set up and administrate an autonomous server over the Internet, without resorting to hosting companies' commercial offers. While system administration is traditionally carried by one person in businesses and institutions, activist server admins have been working towards merging their politics and computing passion, by experimenting with mechanisms of cooperative work., for instance, implements a "collective administration" framework that's been brewed by some french hacklabs for some years, before being put into wider practice in running the server. In an effort to facilitate the "learning by doing" approach and limit the extent of informal hierarchies depending on knowledge between project members, administration tasks are being divided in small clusters. A group of two or more volunteers - one having prior knowledge on the issue, the other willing to learn - takes care of each section for a certain period of time, and then moves on to handle another cluster. Participants eventually get to share a global view over a complex system, novices being empowered by the process, whereas they're usually excluded.

Tech activists have often been prone to contribute modifications to free software projects, some of them particularly reflecting their ethical & practical concern, in regards to anonymity and privacy, related to content-publishing, video editing or radio broadcasting., for example, distribute their server-enhancement developments as free software [40]. Italian hackers issued Dynebolic [41], and the Metabolik hacklab provided X-Evian [42], both being activist-oriented GNU/Linux systems booting off a CD, allowing one to turn his/her computing into a communication weapon in a few clicks. And sometime in 1999, Australian group CAT (Community Activist Technology [43]) released a software called Active [44], that would allow the quick spread of a well-known activist information revolution: Indymedia!

> Indymedia: information, from the bottom to the top

Indymedia [45] was created as an activist answer to corporate misinformation and outrageously biased media coverage of radical protests. It was initiated in the midst of Seattle's tear gas in November 1999, by a group of radical techies offering an original contribution to the anti-WTO actions. It quickly grew into a world-wide network for counter-information, providing an alternative to mainstream media through a collection of decentralised websites. It is one of the most inspiring examples of activist technology development putting Internet to use. Similar to free-software in its open-participation scheme, it has become a major medium, involving thousands.

Indymedia relies on open-publishing. Whereas traditional media divides people into active journalists and passive consumers, Indymedia allows anyone to instantly publish or comment on information. As a portal of street activism, Indymedia attempts to counter official propaganda and mediatic formatting by offering alternative views on the news, and covering social struggles that are generally ignored. By taking its decisions on consensus through transparent public mailing-lists, Indymedia contrasts with the opacity and power-games that lie within the official press. The whole network is based upon volunteer work, and remains independent from institutions, corporations or political parties. Being spread in a number of cities world-wide, it is able to relay information from its source, allowing activists to avoid mediatic filters and censorship. This decentralisation proved to be particularly helpful in countries who seriously lack alternative media structures, and were going through hectic political times, like Argentina or Ecuador, whose Indymedia centers were donated hardware from the US, collected by the Indymedia Solidarity project. Of course, Indymedia runs free software on its servers. Like 80s MIT hackers used to say: "information has to be free!".

Open-access and hacklabs provide physical gateways to Indymedia and like-minded alternative news sites, by re-routing people's habits away from!

> get off the Internet, the street is a rootshell!

Internet is no longer the realm of freedom that techno-enthusiasts had advocated. Probably it was never so, since its physical structures, though dispersed throughout continents, never belonged to its users. Governments, who have long been scared of the Internet's freedom potential, are now taking it back, forcing restrictions upon its unruly tradition. In 1997, one of the biggest German Internet Service Prodivers started blocking requests directed to a dutch website hosting Radikal, a radical-left German newspaper banned from Germany. Dozens of mirror sites popped up as a result, and a big pressure campaign led to the end of the blockade [46].

As in most other European countries, France has recently suffered from a series of new laws on the Internet, generating large waves of discontent among the cyber-population. Outraged geeks organised virtual gatherings, looking forward to exerting pressure, but seriously lacking campaigning experience. Standing at the cross-roads between geek and activist cultures, this is exactly where hacklabs can fill the gap, by sharing knowledge in organising protests with the rest! Looking forward to letting geek anger out on the streets, the PRINT collective initiated the first street protest for "freedom on the Internet" in France, March 2004 [47]. Gathering a few "angry people of the net", the demonstration went down the streets of Dijon, ryhthmed by a geek-battucada, shouting slogans and eventually dropping dead screens covered in fake-blood in front of government offices. Bigger demonstrations followed in Paris, when Internet users' coalitions joined effort with anarcho-syndicalists from the CNT, and organised a street-party against anti-free-Internet repressive politics.

Considering the diversity of tactics deployed within anti-authoritarian struggles over the years, and the very practical victories it could lead to - from maintaining social spaces to shutting down detention centres -, geek struggles can only benefit from getting offline for a while. Here there are probably issues to be considered, in the current fight against software patents and in defense of free software, among others [48].

> yes, computers do have genders

However, not everything is so perfect in the (alternative) computer sphere, by far. We still live in a patriarchal society, where power and influence are mostly males', where men are taught to dominate womyn from an early age, while gender roles attempt to make girls accept their condition. Yesterday, womyn would be treated as irrational beings and denied access to science. Today, technology remains dominated by men. Just as there are few womyn drummers or female guitar players since social pressure makes it so difficult for girls to get there, there are ever fewer fem programmers. Womyn are almost always excluded from and so often made invisible by computing environments; they are lead to use simplified interfaces on Macintoshs, while men play with complicated PCs, just as girls are offered dolls, while boys play at firemen. Of course, geek types aren't usually very helpful in encouraging womyn's integration, as the number of sexist jokes and outrageously macho remarks shows. By the way, it is interesting to note that manual pages generally use "he" for the programmer, and "she" for the user.

"What about anarchist geeks? They can't be sexist!" one could be tempted to say. Unfortunately, there can be no guarantee, since dropping male privileges and dominant attitudes takes a lot more than wearing an anti-sexist shirt as these behaviours are deeply rooted in our social habits and personalities. Virility also lies within keystrokes, through ways of speaking, through means of putting forward one's capacities while refusing to help out others, through creating & feeding atmospheres of competition, through gently scorning beginners, through supposing that all computer knowledge comes from men without questioning it further. It also comes in more subtle ways, by taking over the keyboard to help and demonstrate, rather than explain and let womyn do it themselves. Breaking running sexist code and reprogramming oneself probably takes a while, but remains necessary, as should be the acceptation and support of male geeks towards womyn initiatives.

Fortunately, some girls reclaim the tools, some chicks hack their computers, some womyn merge feminism and technology, some fems code and spread their creativity, some cyber-revolted grrls go public and encourage others to come out. Among these are the Genderchangers [49], who emerged out of the ASCII collective in Amsterdam, organising workshops for womyn, by womyn, on hardware crashing and GNU/Linux. In 2002, they set up /etc [50] in the Balkans, as a "grassroots meeting of women interested in technical activities", which happened every year since. In Berlin, the LOTEC hacklab had a womyn-only opening day a week. Within hackmeetings, gender issues are being more regularly brought up, with cyberfeminist performances or workshops. In parallel to the sixth edition of the Libre Software Meeting [51] in France, a womyn-powered free-software based cybercafé will be setup by grep|grrl [52], whose IRC channel [53] provides a self-organising meeting & visibility space for computerized girls.

> facing possible contradictions: remaining questions

While most hacklabs rely on low-tech by saving computers from the trash, recycling remains a pure contextual hack, dependant on the current consumption chain. Breaking free from any dependency upon capitalism would involve producing hardware, which, given the requirements, is currently highly unlikely. Still, some projects aim at designing open-hardware, whose internals would be transparent like free software is.

Hacklabs might indirectly rely on our current economy, but ultimately depend on hardware, whose production currently proves to be an ecological disaster, considering the raw materials used, the energy consumed and the waste produced. Not to mention the direct social consequences of the high-tech industry in terms of human exploitation, for getting some of the precious materials contained in chips. While switching to a non-productivist economy would definitely change parameters, part of the issue remains, as long as we are to use current computer designs, sustainable alternatives to which have not yet been invented or researched. Questioning this remains crucial, for one to be conscious about the ethical cost of technology as it is, act accordingly, and be able to envision rational models for an alternative society.

> new tools, new struggles, new identities

From hackmeetings to wireless networking user groups, from free software developer rooms to squatted roofs, from Indymedia tents at demonstrations to tech workers' unions... individuals cross-over, shape new configurations and associations, in a "refusal to be enslaved by either a political system or a computer system", as claims an "anar[cho]geek manifesto" [54].

It might appear as fancy, but probably is it also vital, when technology is growing so central and determines tomorrow's weapons of social control, through face recognition, DNA fingerprinting and sub-skin chip implants, to unite technical knowledge and political awareness. In the 70s, when universities first installed password systems, MIT hackers cracked them in protest, considering that measure an unbearable division between users, while their politics involved open flows of information. Today's issues are no longer about refusing passwords, and one should not expect a revival. They are about making something else possible through computers, but shouldn't they also involve technical people standing up in refusal of computer-enforced control?

May 2005, darkveggy <darkveggy at anargeek dot net>

This text is licenced under the a Creative Commons licence, as stated on Share & pass around!

.:. NOTES .:.

[01] For more background information on what hackers are, and what they aren't, read

[02] Wikipedia defines an operating system as "the system software responsible for the direct control and management of hardware and basic system operations. Additionally, it provides a foundation upon which to run application software such as word processing programs and web browsers." More on

[03] Richard Stallman's personal webpage:

[04] The GNU project:

[05] The Free Software Foundation:

[06] More on copyleft on

[07] a kernel is the core component of an operating system, interfacing hardware and software. More on

[08] Linux and the GNU project:

[09] The usage statistic come from Netcraft's web server survey reports. See


[11] Why "Free Software" is better than "Open Source":

[12] Facing the accusation of communism, free-software geeks have often appropriated its symbols with humour:

[13] Anti-authoritarian movements' inspiration comes from a number of sources, ranging from last centuries' socialist utopias and revolutionary social movements of the 60s & 70s, to feminist, black liberation & queer struggles, among others. For more detailed history, political perspectives and tendencies, see the Anarchist FAQ at

[14] People's Global Action (PGA) is an international network of anti-authoritarian, anticapitalist and liberation activists. More information on and

[15] For more than 1O years, official summits of the G8, IMF, World Bank, European Union or WTO have been shaken and sometimes partly canceled, due to international anticapitalist & anti-authoritarian protests, which particularly escalated since 1999. For a partial listing and links to background information, see

[16] For an overview of direct-democracy community practice and facilitation methods used within activist networks, visit

[17] A starting point among others to the broad DIY culture, which is mostly to be discovered off the net:

[18] More squatting-related theory and news is available on

[19] Debian GNU/Linux:

[20] `apt-get install anarchism`! See and

[21] "Is Debian an anarchist organisation?". Discussion thread at

[22] Egocity was a social-centre dedicated to organising public events22 such as concerts, benefit parties for political causes, debates, conferences and workshops. It was evicted & destroyed by riot-cops in January 2004. Some traces of the adventures it allowed can still be browsed through at

[23] Cyber*Forat:

[24] The Plug'n'Politix network has a website ( and a wiki ( French speaking readers can also visit

[25] ASCII:

[26] PUSCII:

[27] LOTEC:

[28] PRINT: &

[29] Monte Paradiso:

[30] Cyberpipe:

[31] Blouk Blouk:

[32] Clustering allows to bind machines together, and mutualise their computing power. Sharing & distributing it over networks allows to envision some alternative models for computer distribution, saving unused resources and reducing hardware requirements.

[33] A "Live-CD" is a complete operating-system that can boot off a CD, allowing people to test and use GNU/Linux without affecting their existing installation. Some of the most popular are Knoppix ( and Ubuntu (

[34] Linux User Groups gather GNU/Linux enthusiasts for socialisation, chit-chat and mutual help in numerous towns in the world. Some of them are listed on

[35] See for Firenze's '98 hackmeeting related content, and for information about Italian hackmeetings.

[36] The "Les Naus" social centre was evicted in December 2003, after 9 years of public activities. More information on the hackmeeting on See for informations about Spanish hackmeetings.

[37] Visit the hacklabs' portal:

[38] Hackmeeting 2003 Iruña:

[39] More information on the THK on The introduction leaflet provides an insight view the self-managed principles at use; see

[40] See

[41] Dynebolic:

[42] X-Evian, a "hacktivist device for disobedience", "toolbox for digital autonomy" and an "interface with cyberspace configured for social activism":

[43] Community Activist Technology - "low tech grass roots net access for real people. Pedestrians, public transport and pushbikes on the information super hypeway":

[44] Active, "stuff for social change":

[45] Visit the global Indymedia portal on For more about Indymedia's internals and organising, explore

[46] For information about Radikal and digital copies, visit

[47] Photos and report of the action are available at

[48] Software patents allow private companies an exclusive property right over concepts, knowledge and ideas. This could ultimately lead to the illegalisation of free software, and prevent independent creation. For more information, see

[49] The Genderchangers:

[50] Eclectic Tech Carnival:

[51] The sixth edition of the Libre Software Meeting is to happen in Dijon, in July 2005 ( An "off" proposing nighty complementary activities is being organised by the french plug'n'politix network in a local squat, Espace autogéré des Tanneries, which programme can be seen on

[52] See

[53] IRC stands for Internet Relay Chat. It is a network protocol allowing users to talk simultaneously within chat-rooms. It is being extensively used by a number of hacklabs and Indymedia groups to organise. See and

[54] "An anargeek manifesto":