Weaving Together a Network of Networks: Report from BattleMesh v8

This summer marked the 8th annual Battle of the Mesh in beautiful Maribor, Slovenia at the foot of the Swiss alps. Each year, folks from around the world who work on open source mesh networking protocols (schemes for routing packets across a network) and community wireless networks converge to deploy a testbed mesh network, running different protocols on top of it and analyzing which of them perform the best.

Mount Pohorje in Maribor, Slovenia, site of BattleMesh v8!

Mount Pohorje in Maribor, Slovenia, site of BattleMesh v8!

This year, the conference agenda also included a wider variety of topics, from decentralized and secure file systems and applications to political discussions about the future of open hardware and firmware in the face of imminent federal regulatory lockdown measures.

The first day was largely spent socializing and setting up the topology of the network:

Topology of the testbed network built at BattleMesh v8

Five actively maintained and deployed routing protocols were tested over the course of the week:
* Babel, a distance-vector routing protocol for IPv6 and IPv4 largely developed by Juliusz Chroboczek in France;
* Batman-adv, an implementation of BATMAN [Better Approach to Mobile Ad-hoc Networking], spearheaded by the Germany-based Freifunk community;
* BMX7, an experimental protocol designed to bridge Layer 2 and Layer 3 routing;
* OLSRd1, short for ‘Optimized Link State Routing’ and widely utilized in many of community networks due to its stability, scalability and active development community,
* OLSRd2, a new iteration of OLSR designed to be more modular and flexible, published by the IETF in 2014.

Day 2 started out rather chaotically, as a dozen wireless hackers attempted to fix the internet they’d borked. The afternoon’s talks featured an excellent presentation by Julius, the lead developer of Babel, entitled ‘babel does not care.’ You can watch the talk (with accompanying slides) here. Julius’ talk was followed by a presentation of GNUnet, a free-as-in-freedom alternative and privacy-conscious network for peer-to-peer filesharing, VOIP communication, and peer discovery that works over a variety of transport mechanisms. Watch the full talk with slides here. Next, Elektra of Freifunk gave a presentation on the current state of TV whitespace spectrum and the potential future applications of UHF. I highly recommend watching the talk, as Elektra concludes with a stirring call-to-action for the community to engage with the political struggle over spectrum allocation, one unfairly slanted toward powerful telecommunications companies over free and open community network usages.

Day 3 kicked off with a presentation by Mathieu Boutier on source-specific routing in Babel [Video]. Next came a presentation on cjdns, a distributed and end-to-end encrypted p2p IPv6 meshnet project better known as Hyperboria. They have just begun collaborating with a fascinating project called IPFS, the Interplanetary File System, which combines ideas from Git, Bittorrent, and the web to enable such applications as peer-to-peer filesharing through creating a distributed content cache accessed through a hashed URL. Check out their talk, which appropriately followed the cjdns presentation. Folks from Battlemesh are using IPFS to store media content uploaded by conference participants!

An easy-to-assemble, open hardware plasma cutter from Irnas.

We celebrated the mid-point of the conference by spending the afternoon and evening in Maribor, first with a tour of KreatorLab. KreatorLab is home to a bevy of inspiring open hardware projects, including a plasma cutter, a 3D printer, and Koruza, Musti’s brainchild enabling gigabit wireless optical links.

After our visit to KreatorLab, we headed over to the GT22, a self-described “transdisciplinary laboratory in real space with transnational guerilla art school institutes” hosting space for theater rehearsals, a radical library, a photography museum, an indoor skating ramp and a party space populated by a VJ projection screen and a DJ booth. While the DJ played dance music, our true-to-form hackers proceeded to gather outside and along the walls not dancing 🙂

Thursday, Day 4 of the conference, began with a presentation of Cake (Comprehensive Queue Management Made Easy), a project that works to make wifi faster by reducing network latency. The following presentation by Dave Taht provided an excellent overview of the current insecurities in Internet of Things devices outlined across 11 layers of the network stack, culminating in a rousing call-to-action for hackers to build more and better open hardware. I highly recommend watching this talk!

Dave’s talk was a fitting antecedent to the subsequent presentation and discussion of the FCC’s recent proposal to lock down wireless routers by requiring vendors to “ensure that only properly authenticated software is loaded and operating the device.” This has huge implications for community networks in the US, with similar rules being discussed for the EU and Canada. After a heavily animated discussion, folks continued to discuss the issue over lunch, with many inspired by Dave’s talk to create our own hacker-friendly hardware down to the chipset level. We created a mailing list to collaboratively compose letters to the FCC, the comment period for which has recently been extended to October 9th and is open to everyone.

Unfortunately, I missed the entirety of Thursday afternoon’s talks as I literally sat in the same spot at our lunch table conversing with new friends into the evening.

Friday kicked off with a presentation from Demos to consolidate and test various decentralized applications with the aim of supporting a more decentralized web. She was followed by Nemesis presenting, NetJSON and Nodeshot, projects working to build node databases for network monitoring and administration. After lunch, Paige gave an impressive presentation on MaidSafe, a secure and decentralized storage and communications platform.

On the last day, a few of us set up a video camera and did short interviews with representatives from as many community wireless networks as we could gather. The focus of the interviews was to explore the various motivations and unique challenges faced by a diversity of community networks, with the aim to inspire and guide the development of many more to come. Watch this blog for updates once the videos have been edited and posted to the web!

So… which protocol won?
Given the complexity and variety of tests and analytics, the ‘winner’ is difficult to determine. Check out the beautiful (and nearly complete!) documentation, including detailed graphs and links to git repos of the software used to test the network here.

Please drop me a line at jenny [at] sudomesh [dot] org if you’d like to help plan for the very first ‘BattleMesh West’ at the Omni Commons next year!

Free the Means: Co-Creating Ethnographies of the Future

Below are crib notes from my 4th American Anthropological Association meeting. Enjoy!

I’d like to begin by putting my story right on the table: I’m an anthropologist without an academy – a decision I made halfway through my Ph.D program for a variety of reasons that could be clustered under a personal inability to be complicit in a system that financially exploits young people for the purposes of paying off its debts to Wall Street.

Six months before Occupy began, I took my first leave of absence from my program, having befriended a group of wonderfully weird, idealistic brains up in the Bay Area. They were all super active at Noisebridge, a hackerspace in the mission open to the public. We were working on creating a live/work hackerspace in Oakland when I got pulled into working on OccupySF’s website at Noisebridge. I took my second leave of absence in the fall, swept headlong down the rabbit hole of revolutionary fervor.

Hackers and academics share a common challenge in contemporary culture: walled gardens. While internet freedom fighters rally against the walled gardens of Google and Facebook, activist-academics fight similar battles over the literal walled gardens of the Ivory tower and closed-access journals. From my vantage point, the solutions are the same in both instances: creating decentralized networks devoted to self-sufficiency, autonomous learning and grassroots, DIY community-building – making the very blueprints for such endeavors open source, aka freely available to the public.

To rewind a bit and cover any confusion over the oft-misunderstood term “hacker,” allow me to clarify: A hacker is not necessarily someone who maliciously breaks into computer systems – as mass media portrayals would have you assume. A hacker is a learning enthusiast, someone who is so curious as to take something apart completely in order to discover the fundamental components of a system. To “hack,” then, is to learn the process of creating something through doing it, and through modifying it to do what you want it to do. Put simply, in the words of McKenzie Wark (author of The Hacker Manifesto): “The slogan of the hacker class is not the workers of the world united, but the workings of the world untied.”

What I’m proposing, then, is “hackademia”. Hackerspaces and Occupy, like anthropology has always done, have created bridges for moving between worlds. It’s my adamant belief that the role of an anthropologist is simply that of storyteller. The very best we can do is transmute the mundane and otherwise hidden into vibrant and visible poetry; the worst we can do is keep our stories contained from those who have ears to hear.

So last night, I’m at the weekly meeting for the Oakland hackerspace I’ve been co-creating with a hodgepodge array of changemakers for the past year. I’d sent a callout for a ‘meta-organizational hacking’ meetup to take place an hour before the regular meeting. The goal was to identify where we could possibly refine our process, assisted by a Danish Kaos Pilot (the Kaos Pilots being a program focused around social entrepreneurship and leadership).


This month marks the one-year anniversary of Sudo Room’s first meeting. Drawing from prior experience as well as the Hackerspace Design Patterns guide, we set up a mailing list, wiki, and IRC channel. We take notes together using an etherpad shared document, and post them on the wiki after each meeting. We decided to run by consensus without fastening ourselves to a binding agreement; iteration is invaluable, and we wanted to leave room for growth and change.

As a subculture, or even a ‘class’ according to Wark, hackers are remarkably meta-aware. Rather than genetic reproduction, hacker culture reproduces itself memetically. The hacker ethos of open source collaboration provides a roadmap, replete with tools for multi-maker storytelling. Our dedication to “copy / paste culture” means we have been committed from the first to the active practice of openness, transparency and collaboration – making this community an ideal laboratory for experiments in collaborative ethnography and multimedia storytelling. No confidentiality agreements needed when everyone is down to open source all the things!

While Sudo Room embraces an inclusive model of “hacking” that goes beyond hardware and software – to wetware, wearables, and even culture itself – there is certainly reason to resist confining ourselves to hacker culture alone. While not disregarding the admirable ethical core of lifelong learning, decentralization, and collaboration, the term is also connotative of an elite culture consisting of a privileged class of internet savants.

So I started hanging out in the #geekfeminism channel on IRC to get feedback on how we could create a more inclusive space. In turn, some geeky feminists started hanging out in the #sudoroom channel and contributing to some of the truly epic conversations we’ve been having around access and diversity.

There is something truly exciting about the interconnections between subcultures and the value of their hybridization in the spirit of creativity. What happens, for instance, when you combine botany buffs and hackers? You might get something like BioBridge, the amorphous DIYbio contingent of Noisebridgers, working on experiments in oyster mushroom growing and developing Arduino-controlled sensors for monitoring temperature and pH levels in kombucha brews and sourdough starters. Here you would also find overlap with Tastebridge’s Vegan Hackers night and perhaps some friendly Food Not Bombs volunteers.

While ‘collaborative ethnography’ as a form of ethnographic co-representation is not new – the idea was introduced in Writing Culture well before the turn of the millenium – the current milieu of rapid technological progress combined with what appears to be an earnest and timely revival of the commons is well-positioned for new experimental approaches to co-creating ethnography.

As resident cyberanthropologist (or, as others have called me, “that anthropologist who went rogue”), I find my skills uniquely situated to the task of creating replicable, transparent documentation, facilitating cross-cultural communication (particularly with groups representing marginalized voices), and providing meta-analysis of the culture we’re creating.

Some of these projects include:
-IRC bot, which anyone can contribute to, that logs channel conversations and enables bookmarking by participants in the chat.
-Autodocumentation Stations established in hackerspaces across the globe
-Connecting maker culture through a decentralized network of nodes denoting places, people, tools, projects, and blueprints.

One year ago, I stood up on a podium much like this one, making a callout to all the anthropologists present to take themselves down to the Occupy Montreal camp two blocks away from the posh convention center in which the AAAs were happening – closed to those without tickets costing somewhere between $200 and $500 – and to share their knowledge through outdoor teach-ins.

A lot has happened since that fateful weekend when I found myself more excited and welcome out there, sharing stories with haggard, weary occupiers, rolling cigarettes in the blustery wind not even thinking about just how cold my fingertips were. I remember walking through the publishing hall afterwards, in the polished corridors of the convention center, and being angry at how much everything cost, how it all just goes to the publishing companies anyway, how inadequate academia’s response has been to the liberation of information enabled by the internet and its dogged defenders

My aim in this talk is to illuminate a kind of “posthuman ethnography” that incorporates multimedia archives and community documents, the social organization of networked space, web-based communication tools and collaborative projects alongside the stories and shared experiences of individual members. In this sense, the end “product” is as collaborative, dynamic and diverse as its subject.