Building the underground computer railroad

Anti-globalization activists in Oakland, Calif., are recycling old machines, loading them with free software and shipping them off to Ecuador.

Published September 23, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

It's surprisingly easy to build a computer. "There's only like seven or eight parts in a PC," Eddie Nix says as we stand in the cavernous warehouse of a computer recycling center in Oakland, Calif. We're surrounded by waist-high stacks of unwanted computers, but Nix insists that the systems only look like they're dead -- they can easily be resurrected, he says, and put to good use.

Wearing combat boots and a T-shirt emblazoned with a large skull and crossbones, Nix looks more like a biker than your stereotypical computer geek. He pulls out a "box" -- essentially a computer with all of the parts removed -- from a pile of old machines and sets it on a nearby worktable. "They have all sorts of people coming in here," Nix says of the warehouse, the Alameda County Computer Resource Center (ACCRC). "Some people are from drug rehab programs, from wherever -- and they can have you making computers in a day." He pops open the box and gathers all the necessary parts -- memory chips, a hard drive, a video card, a keyboard and a mouse. In less than a minute, Nix fits all the pieces into the machine and hits the start button.

It's a sunny Saturday afternoon in September, and Nix is here on behalf of the Independent Media Center, a loose affiliation of grass-roots journalists who specialize in staging anti-globalization protests at international conferences devoted to "free trade." In the run-up to the next meeting of delegates to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which will be held in Ecuador in late October, Nix and a handful of others have spent weeks turning unwanted computer parts donated to the ACCRC into working machines that they plan to use in their protest. Other volunteers are doing the same thing at Free Geek, a recycling center in Portland, Ore., and a group in Los Angeles is helping out as well. Together, the geek activists aim to build about 300 Linux machines, which they'll stuff into a shipping container and send down to Ecuador before the protest.

People at the Independent Media Center pride themselves on the decentralized nature of their organization. There are no actual, official "leaders" -- but I'm here to see Evan Henshaw-Plath, who's the main force behind the Ecuador project. Henshaw-Plath is a 25-year-old programmer who once founded a dot-com and now runs a dot-net:, a calendar site used by various groups to schedule their demonstrations. During the past year, he's also spent a lot of his time with activists in South America, helping them set up computer labs, networks and Web sites, all in an attempt to stymie what he sees as the formidable, and growing, influence of various international trade organizations in the region. During one of his visits, he met with some of the groups planning to protest at the FTAA meeting and had an epiphany.

Ever since the huge anti-World Trade Organization protest in Seattle in 1999, where the IMC got its start, many of the world's trade meetings have featured chanting, puppet-carrying anti-globalization activists, supported by a cadre of "journalist-activists" from Indymedia. But at most of the protests so far, says Henshaw-Plath, the activists who come in with their own equipment usually took their computers with them when they went back home after the demonstration was over.

"What we haven't been able to pull off is getting a large number of computers to a large part of the society that's at the center of these issues," says Henshaw-Plath, "and that's when we thought about shipping them computers."

After October's protest, the 300 computers that are being shipped to Ecuador will stay there; some will be used in Quito, the capital city, where activists will also set up a citywide wireless network, but many will be sent to various towns and villages all over the region. "It's interesting because on some level you might say these people don't need computers -- they need clean water, housing and some sort of economic base that's not exploited," Henshaw-Plath says. "But we're saying that giving computers to the right people, that's the tool to get that social change."

It's a tool that simply wasn't available as recently as five years ago, he says. One fortunate corollary to Moore's Law -- the hallowed business proposition that predicts that new microprocessors double in power every 18 months -- is that old computers, too, get better and better, but, because they're technically "obsolete," they're dirt-cheap, too. Thanks to this pace of innovation, there's a glut, these days, of old machines that rich societies don't know what to do with -- machines that poor societies could make use of.

The pace of computer obsolescence has been in effect for decades, but more recently, the thriving growth of the free software and open-source software developer communities means there is now a steadily growing body of software applications that are also free. The rise of wireless networking also means that the computers can easily be connected together in regions that don't have a solid communications infrastructure. The foundation for a tech-aided revolution is in place, says Henshaw-Plath; all that's needed is people to do the work, and that's where he and others at the ACCRC come in.

The handful of geek volunteers gathered together at the ACCRC are all dressed casually, in shorts and sandals and T-shirts, and some of them are covered with the grime that comes from working long hours in a warehouse. Many of these people pop in and out of the job, assembling several computers for a few hours and then leaving; but others, like Henshaw-Plath and Nix, have been at this for weeks, nonstop, and they plan to go for at least a week more.

The ACCRC is divided into two sections -- a small workspace where computers are assembled, and a giant warehouse where old computers are dropped off, and where volunteers, working with the care of archaeologists on a dig, plunder the machines for their jewels. The thing most of us refer to as a "computer" -- the big tower that sits under our desks, humming softly as it controls our lives -- is composed of dozens of smaller parts of varying degrees of value. There's gold and other valuable metals in a computer, but there are also toxic substances; a CRT computer monitor has as much as five pounds of lead in it.

Much of what comes into the ACCRC and other computer recycling centers is sent to third-party processors who turn the stuff into usable material. Oso Martin, the executive director of Free Geek, in Portland, says that "about half of what we take in is junk. We test any of the stuff that we know is reusable, and then we have volunteers teach other volunteers how to build machines from it."

Reverend Phil Sano, Free Geek's volunteer coordinator, says that all sorts of people come to Free Geek to learn how to build machines -- from teenagers to senior citizens. (Sano, who's 25, is an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church. After he and his friends once collectively pondered "the meaninglessness of titles," Sano wrote to the church, "and they ended up ordaining me on the spot.") People come to Free Geek because they want to "remove the mystery" of how computers work, Sano says. "And that's the thing that prevents many people from interacting with computers, that mystery. It's what keeps them on that side of the digital divide." After a volunteer has assembled five computers, or "Freek Boxes," he gets to take the sixth one home.

When you build a machine out of old parts, though, problems are certain to crop up. The computer that Nix built in front of me, for example, doesn't show any signs of life when he attempts to boot it up -- the screen is blank.

"Must be a bad video card," Nix smiles, and goes off to find a new one. A minute later, he's back with a new card, and, after searching for the right screwdriver for a minute, he fits the card into place.

He starts up the computer, looks at the screen ... still nothing.

"Alex," he yells to someone walking by, "where's a stash of semireliable video cards?"

"There aren't any, man," says Alex.

"Great," says Nix. "Here's Mr. Salon coming to see our project and we don't have any video cards."

During the weeks they've been at this, the IMC people have become used to such hassles. Depending on the delivery cycle of old machines, some days they're flush with good equipment -- working video cards, systems with fast processors -- and other days there's nothing left. "The trick," says Henshaw-Plath, "is to look at a pile of machines and pick the good one." If all goes well, you can build a computer in 15 minutes -- spend any more time than that and you better be building a great machine, something with a very fast processor or video editing capabilities.

The software part of the project is less hit-and-miss than the hardware. The activists are using Mandrake Linux with installation scripts provided by Free Geek, which makes the whole thing rather foolproof -- it's the kind of pop-in-a-CD, point-and-click thing a 10-year-old could do. Or a 60-year-old, for that matter. The average volunteer can build about 10 computers in a day, Henshaw-Plath says; people with lots of experience and some luck can build as many as 25.

If you just look at their specifications, the systems the activists are building here seem almost worthless, Pentium 100-class machines with about a gigabyte of hard drive space and 80 megs of RAM. The sort of computer that went for thousands in 1996, but that wouldn't fetch $50 on eBay today.

But if you wipe Windows off these systems and replace it with a Linux-based operating system, and if you just plan to use them for the Web and e-mail, they can be quite useful, says Henshaw-Plath.

In the remote villages of South America, "all they need computers for is communication," says Henshaw-Plath. "They'll use it mostly for e-mail -- and it's not e-mailing someone far off, it's just someone in the next village. They only need some way to communicate between the two of them that will allow them to coordinate and articulate strategies for social change."

For the Amazonian villages where there's no electricity or where phone lines are scarce, the activists plan to set up free computer labs in the nearby cities. Many cities already have commercial Internet cafes, but they cost about a dollar per hour of use, Henshaw-Plath says, which is about a day's wage for most of the population.

The IMC activists plan to ship off these computers to Guayaquil, Ecuador's main port city, by the end of September. Because none of the computers are being sold in Ecuador, and because they're being transferred from an American nonprofit to an Ecuadorian one, the activists won't be charged any international shipping duties on the computers. "It's what you call real free trade," says Eddie Nix.

If it all works out, they say, this will be only the first of many international computer donations. Henshaw-Plath says he has plans to send machines to Brazilian landless peasants, and to people in Argentina hurt by that country's economic meltdown.

"In Argentina, which was once a poster child for IMF policies, the banking system has been shut down," he says. "There's a lot of people who are upset at banks -- and they've occupied them and kicked the bankers out and turned them into social centers. We'll be setting up free media labs that people can use in these occupied banks."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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