Subversive Gadgets

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
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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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