Two Years Later, Where Is Occupy's Internet?

Catching up with Isaac Wilder, who we first met during the height of Occupy actions as he and a small band of hackers set out to build the people's Internet.

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Mar 14 2014, 2:20pm

Watch Free the Network, Motherboard's 2012 documentary about big dreams, cloudy missions, complex affiliations, and what happens when a DIY hack-tech movement confronts the force of the state.

Last we checked, Isaac Wilder had had enough of New York City. Wilder, who heads up the Free Network Foundation (FNF), had woven himself and the FNF's vision of an open-access, community-controlled mesh network into the Occupy movement. But by February 2012, with the movement semingly petering out, Wilder looked West. Along with his buddy and FNF partner Tyrone Greenfield (the son of Jerry Greenfield, of Ben & Jerry's fame), Wilder packed up his hardware, and set out for Kansas City, Missouri. 

It was a bold, if strategic move. Still is. Kansas City, of course, is one of a handful of Google Fiber test beds. It's here that the FNF has steadily rooted its community-based Kansas City Free Network (KCFN). With Google Fiber's expansion moving quick, and the Web turning 25 this week, it felt like a good time to check in with Wilder. We caught up, appropriately enough, over email.

MOTHERBOARD: How are you, Isaac?

Wilder: I'm great! It's finally getting springy here in KC, and that means it network building season!

It's been awhile since we last spoke. A year, at least. What have you been up to?

We've had an incredible year. We're putting finishing touches on our annual report right now, but to put it succinctly: There is an emergent international coalition of free network organizations, with strong participation from guifi.net (Catalonia), Altermundi (Argentina), FFDN (France), WLAN-Slovenjia (Slovenia), People's Open Network (Oakland), and KCFN (Kansas/Missouri).

The FNF is expanding its role as a steward of key accords / covenants / definitions / licenses, and helping foster international cooperation. We are on the ground in Kansas City and Austin, developing, improving, and teaching the theory and practice of free networks. Personally, I just bought a house in Kansas City, and am planning to be based here for at least the next couple of years.

What's the scope the FNF's community mesh network out there now, anyway?

Still here, growing strong. We've now got seven major sites throughout the city, with about 500 families served by KCFN, mostly in public housing. That's basically where we landed at the end of last building season. This building season, we plan to see drastic expansion, including construction of a 24ghz, gigabit backbone through the urban core.

You once told me that while you weren't sure Google Fiber will succeed in the end that you were confident the FNF (which isn't "in the same business as Google") and GF could ultimately coexist. Do you still feel that way? 

More or less. GF is an interesting product aimed at a particular market. The reality seems to be something of a letdown from the hype. KCFN is able to offer a very different value proposition. It's the same reason that a high-end specialty store, and a food co-op are able to coexist. We have different values, different offerings, and different markets.

Let's talk about Occupy for a minute. How do you view the movement in hindsight? That's maybe (probably) a loaded question.

Said it from day one, will say it again: it was just a practice. We have very much infrastructure to build before we can really start to talk about independence/autonomy/liberty/justice.

Over two years on, do you think the movement was a concerted effort? How did its goals stack up against the crushing political and technological realities of the System?

I think it was a pressure relief valve. I think that valve got bolted down, and then exothermically welded. You know what happens when you seal a pressure vessel and continue to apply heat? It fuckin' explodes.

What was Occupy's biggest mistake?

Framing our agenda in terms of what we didn't want, instead of what we did.

And what about Occupy's biggest success?

Building something closer to what we did want, even if it was deeply imperfect and ephemeral

How do you feel when you look back on your time with Occupy NYC? Maybe even on a specific moment, like when you tried to reclaim your belongings that had been seized in the raid on Zuccotti Park.

It's not particularly emotional for me. Occupy, for me, is subsumed in the larger narrative (in my life) of the free network movement. I view it as one (early) chapter in a much longer story. If anything the memories are envolped in the unavoidable haze of nostalgia. Even just a few years out, it is far easier to remember the beauty, the realness, the feeling of electricity, than it is to remember the noise, the grime, and discord.

Personally, do you have any regrets during your time in NYC during the height of Occupy?

No. No regrets. I don't believe much in regret.

Isaac Wilder with a transmitter for a giant wifi hotspot at the Rosedale Ridge housing project in Kansas City. Photo: Connecting For Good

Empires rise and fall. Especially in cyberspace. The NSA has a strong hand, but we are as sand—the more tightly we are gripped, the more we slip through the cracks.

Could something like Occupy ever happen again? 

Could, should, probably will. Pressure valve. I've maintained contact with a lot of folks from Occupy, and I continue to meet new ones. The solidarity is still there. The real, meaningful long term projects are still active, and growing. We will be better equipped, better trained, and better informed next time.

How might democratized tools and technologies play into popular unrest in the future?

We will not rely upon tools that are designed to sell us out at our moment of greatest need. We will have longer standing, more robust trust networks (on a human level) to serve as a foundation for deliberation and organization. We are learning, building, communicating, every single day. As the spectacle fades, the dire urgency of our cause comes back into focus.

We know without a doubt that governments are watching and listening to us. Can we ever create a truly free network beyond the specter of, say, the NSA?

Yes. Empires rise and fall. Especially in cyberspace. The NSA has a strong hand, but we are as sand -- the more tightly we are gripped, the more we slip through the cracks. The Seleucids thought themselves invincible, too, but the Macabees were nimble, no?

What's next for you and the FNF? What's on the horizon six months, a year, five years from now?

The next six months will see drastic expansion of KCFN, and the initial release of the Network Commons License. There will be a lot of operator training that goes along with that. A year from now, I hope to be doing equal amounts of support and training. The next year is also going to involve a lot of R&D into tower construction and design. At least, that's what I'm excited to hack on. There's lots in the pipeline. Five years from now, I think we will be knee deep in high-altitude platform and payload design. Eventually, we probably are going to need some of that fiber. :-)

Along the way, what'll be you biggest challenge?

Finding ways to expand our coalition (and political bloc) without compromising our principals.

To switch gears, how's Tyrone doing? 

Tyrone is doing well. We shaved all his hair off last night, so he looks like a sexy mole rat/actual 25 year old.

Anything else?  

All glory to the most high. Make your life beautiful, strange, unnerving, because it is so damn paltry. Sub specie aeternitatis, we are nothing -- at the very least, let's have some fun. :-)