Home > Hesitating > Recycling Technology and Sharing Knowledge

Recycling Technology and Sharing Knowledge

Here in the west coast, the youngest outpost of civilization the world knows, there is no collision of the past and the future. It is undeniably a modern place where the culture, the technology and the culture operate in a particular harmony of now. You would have to travel east to find any example of the gulf of time, to Boston where Paul Revere lies at the Granary Burial Ground down the street from a Radio Shack improbably manhandled into the basement of a three hundred year old brick building. Philadelphia is home to Elfreth’s Alley, the longest continuously inhabited street in America. You can walk down the cobbled street lined with narrow homes before turning the corner onto a busy street lined by boutique galleries. Travel farther east and you find the most severe dissonance of all, Japan, where the most advanced vending machine ever developed will sell hot coffee and cold soda to people living in houses that have stood since the middle ages.

But that’s just part of why Japan is a curiosity for the world. Somehow the ancient and the modern blend into a mysterious whole of wafer-thin cell phones and shinto shrines. Just as in San Francisco where internet use in coffee shops in as ubiquitous now as seeing two old men silently wage war across a chess-board once was ten years ago. Cafes have long been a place for the cutting edge, from the social rejects who became Bohemians to the folkies and art-fags who exhibited their talents and personalities in the corners and on the walls. Somehow it’s less an surprise to see two people sharing a table yet completely absorbed in the separate world of their laptops then seeing a cluster of people debate the merits of cubism or a person quietly reading a book of poems over a cappuccino. If advertisements are hip to the trend laptops are flooding the world, leveling the playing field for people everywhere, but it’s still hard to imagine the saffron-robed Dali Lama checking e-mail.

Dali Lama and Children, 1960

Odd as it may seem recent efforts by a disparate cluster of people have made the internet a reality for an ancient people normally considered to shun the modern era and the trappings that come along with it. Since the Chinese absorbed Tibet in 1950 a large immigrant population has found homes in the northern mountains of India. Many found placement in Dharamsala where a population of over 100,000 Tibetan exiles now live and who have been working to rebuild their shattered community since the Dali Lama arrived at the end of the 50’s. It’s a small city in the harsh frontier where running water and electricity can’t be relied on so much as hoped for on any given day. Yet somehow it is here that a major technological coup has taken place.

Israeli ex-patriot Yahel Ben-David came to visit a friend who was on a spiritual quest and found himself leaving behind his high-paying position with a Silicon Valley linux firm to begin life anew among the refugee population. Finding the plight of the Tibetan people unconscionable Ben-David began to formulate a method of providing some service to help them advance beyond subsistence. He knew networking so he scoured the city for old computers, fax machines, modems, phones– anything linux oriented that he could take apart to rebuild. Over time he began to have prototypes which he would have to take back to Israel in order to test; India originally forbid open wireless networks. He introduced his ideas to others, he accepted donations of old parts from abroad, he waited.

And when India finally opened a limited amount of bandwidth for WiFi he was ready, manually placing his first antennae that same day. They sprung up in trees, off balconies, from the spires of buildings and the roofs of temples. Adjustments, repairs, re-placement, checks, tests– day by day searching for the signal and trying to keep the monkeys from fucking everything up. Then there was the wireless mesh. From his efforts there is now a grid of over thirty satellite relays spreading a blanket of connection over Dharamsala, reserved exclusively for the Tibetan people. Temples and schools host the server computers and the antennae and a small fee for maintenance, everything operated from the Tibetan Technology Center, housed by the venerable and long-standing charity the Tibetan Children’s Village. Now the kids, some of whom are third generation exiles, can learn network administration and web design along with their culture, traditions and history.

It’s not perfect– they had to block porn sites almost immediately because the network couldn’t support the interest and Tibetan script isn’t something that keyboards recognize just yet– but the Wireless Mesh Project has effectively provided internet access to over two thousand computers in Dharamsala alone by recycling technology and sharing knowledge. The relays operate on solar panels making them more reliable then any of the utilities provided by the local government. When one tower drops there are others all around keeping the signal strong. Something has been created in a rural Indian mountain town that hasn’t been effectively achieved in the heart of Silicon Valley by industry leaders. There’s been efforts to improve upon the technology- a telephony expert has travelled from Australia to work on incorporating VoIP connecting settlements spread out along the Indian/Tibetan border- and it has spread to other refugee communities. The Dharamsala mesh has been joined by three others all built and maintained by a team of Tibetan and foreign geeks. The exiles hope this window to the outside world can help them grow economically (there’s unfortunately talk of developing call-centers like in other Indian cities as well as online cultural curiosities for sale ala’ arrowhead necklaces and turquoise statues off the res) while strengthening their connection to their history and displaced communities. As the Chinese have repeatedly made attempts to destroy anything historically Tibetan in the occupied land ancient texts have been smuggled out where they’re being preserved digitally and passed from computer to computer. There’s hope that becoming a presence online can help bring the plight of the Tibetans back into the public-eye and exert pressure politically without having to deal with any Beastie Boys. The hard work seemed to pay off with Boingboing writer and globe-trotting internet personality Xeni Jardin introducing the world of NPR to the world of Tibet online.

Wireless Mesh Installation

Not everyone is pleased. Soon after an article was published about the wireless mesh project a DDoS attack temporarily disabled the network; although the evidence wouldn’t stand up in court (or courts without executions taking place on the roof) it does suggest the attack originated in China. So after struggling with bitter cold, savage mountain winds, poverty, out-dated technology and primates Ben-David and his band squared off with monkeys of another breed. Fortunately friends have been made around the world, the global computing community seems pretty on board.

If we were still living in a world where Tibet was like the opening of “The Golden Child” you would have trouble believing someone named Oxblood Ruffin installed encryption software for the Dali Lama but we’ve left that and debates about Cubism behind. Hackers and phreaks have found common cause and it seems the roots of Hacktivism can be traced to the implementation of The Great Firewall of China. In addition to helping set-up and secure the Tibetan grid there have been concerted efforts to tackle the Chinese directly. Applications such as Torpark, which randomizes the IP address visible to a network administrator while encrypting the user end of the signal, and methods of encryption such as steganography which hides sensitive data within, eh, insensitive data are now out there helping people achieve something very basic– an unrestricted access to information. In the states this is some big-money shit, this is an entire industry that works with budgets that use the world billions. In Tibet it took a sense of what was right, some left-of-center thinking and a way of keeping the damn monkeys from fucking shit up.

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