When inventor-activist Joshua Kinberg got nabbed on the eve of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, he was in the midst of an interview with MSNBC's Ron Reagan.
Kinberg was describing a device he'd dubbed Bikes Against Bush. The concept was as subversive as it was simple: Visitors to Kinberg's Web site (www.bikesagainstbush.com) would type short invectives (no obscenities allowed) about the current administration, which were to be transported to a laptop mounted on his bike, and then, as Kinberg pedaled down the block, an array of spray cans filled with water-soluble chalk would 'print' his favorites on the street. The New York Police Department was not amused.
Before Kinberg got to demonstrate the invention, he was arrested for criminal mischief and his Wi-Fi-enabled bike, laptop, and souped-up dot matrix printer were confiscated -- all while the MSNBC cameras rolled.
At press time, the NYPD had yet to relinquish his equipment, but the publicity Kinberg received during and after the arrest was more than a welcome consolation prize -- it was an anticipated outcome.
Kinberg is part of a high-tech political movement involving artists, scientists, activists, and inventors who are blending technology with street theater, both to draw the public into the creative process and to ensure that the art of protest keeps pace with the mass media.
To do this sort of improvisational performance art requires props -- functional high-tech accessories that attract attention. Dozens are already available to the public, and countless others are in development. Here are six of the most subversive:
Magicbike Wi-Fi Bike: It's true that wireless Internet connections are everywhere, but when you're running from police at a NAFTA demonstration, it's not always so easy to pop into a Starbucks to get wired. The Magicbike, equipped with Wi-Fi antennas that feed into a laptop located in a specially equipped saddlebag, can keep up to 350 people connected to the Internet anywhere wireless access is needed. Artist Yury Gitman says his creation has a reach of up to 100 meters. www.magicbike.net/about.html
Rocket Crowd Counter: Official crowd counts done at protests, especially counts conducted by local 'officials,' are notoriously low. To circumvent the system, the Bureau of Inverse Technology put a tiny video camera on a model rocket that, after popping its parachute, sends footage back to computers on the ground that are equipped with head-counting software. http://www.bureauit.org/rocket/
Public Broadcast Cart: Artist Ricardo Miranda Zu?iga has turned an ordinary shopping cart into a miniature media outlet. Now, when a crowd gathers on a street corner, the class rabble rouser can have his or her voice amplified by six small speakers mounted on the cart, streamed onto the Internet via a wireless modem, and broadcast over the (still) public airwaves courtesy of a small FM transmitter. http://www.ambriente.com/wifi/index.html
GraffitiWriter Robot: Blending the technology behind remote-controlled toys with the textual immediacy of a dot-matrix printer, this toy truck, much like Joshua Kinberg's Bikes Against Bush, has five spray cans mounted on the back. The difference between the two? When the cops start chasing the truck, the operator has time to find higher ground. http://www.appliedautonomy.com/gw.html
TXTmob: Before your thumbs cramp from trying to text-message 100 of your closest friends about what street you'll be blocking off next weekend, consider this free service from the Institute of Applied Autonomy, a research organization 'dedicated to the cause of individual and collective self-determination.' TXTmob, functioning as a sort of e-mail billboard, allows groups of people to send and receive up-to-the-minute transmissions from groups of people organized around a range of different topics. At the 2004 Republican National Convention, groups such as TimesUp! New York and the City College Radicals used this technology to keep networks of protesters informed about media and law-enforcement hot spots. http://www.appliedautonomy.com/txtmob.html
Feral Robotic Dog: The Bureau of Inverse Technology is an international design agency that develops 'technoproducts' for 'social application.' To bring attention to environmental pollution, its engineers have retooled those canine robots you see in toy stores to be 'functional gamma source detector agents.' In nongeekspeak, that simply means they're cyberhounds that buzz about in packs, sniffing for radiation. The group hopes that people will be more receptive to these cute novelties than they would be to a bunch of beleaguered activists. http://www.bureauit.org/feral/