The answer, I think, is none of the above. Because in the not-too-distant future, when this war is over, the new overlords will need vast networks of computers to manage the databases on our lives and surveillance of our actions. It may well be that a handful of code writers and chip designers who control the world of microprocessing will control the rest as well, because in the future, everything--including the Anti-Terror Security State--will need computers to run it. And those who know computers will be in control. The rest will be drones in the hive. Geeks, in other words, will rule the world.
Some call it the digital divide. Others call it techno-fascism. And some just call it the future.
But in an enlightened corner of Portland, a small group is struggling against this new silicon caste system. In an old warehouse in SE, hundreds of brains have come together, buzzing like the computers they feel so at home with. They are rebel geeks and they are working towards a truly revolutionary goal: Computers, knowledge, and the internet for everyone--for free!
Through an organization called "Free Geek," people are getting computers, not exactly for free, but in exchange for labor. It works like this: People and corporations drop off their old, broken, and obsolete computers, then volunteers strip them for good parts and they are put back together for the poor, unplugged masses. To get a basic "Freek Box," loaded with Gnu/Linux software and a 28.8K or 33.6K modem, an aspiring geek must put in 24 hours of work at Free Geek. But to get a "SupaFreek Box," 48 hours of one's life are required. This short-time position could entail receiving donated computer parts, which helps demystify the machines, but it can also include anything that needs to be done around the Free Geek shop--even building your own computer.
It is a brilliant concept, an ecology for the computing world, and is the brainchild of one man--a revolutionary, a visionary--with one name. He calls himself just "Oso," and though he wears no balaclava, he is the man in charge at Free Geek's central command headquarters.
A LIFE OF ITS OWN
It was just before Earth Day, not long after the millennium, when Free Geek was born in Oso's mind. At the time, he was a lowly free-lance geek and architectural consultant who had largely opted out of the tech boom. In his spare time, he was working for various do-gooder causes and had recently changed his name to Oso from something he will not reveal. But most notably, in the rush toward Earth Day 2000, there was a strange energy around him.
"It was really weird," Oso says of the time. "It was this feeling that everything I wanted would just manifest itself. If I was working for an organization and we needed a warehouse, then boom, a warehouse would show up."
Under this shadow of good karma, one day Oso looked at the pile of old, broken computers sitting in his house and thought, "Hey, I should fix these up and give them to my friends who don't have email." Oso turned to his friend Matt Follett and told him this. It was an off-handed remark, but it would soon become the most important remark of Oso's life.
Follett, who was no ordinary geek himself, immediately saw the potential of the idea and said, "Yeah, you should do that! You should set up an organization that does that!" But Oso thought, "I don't really have time for that." The next day, though, Follett called him up and said he had $250 to file for non-profit status and 85 computers donated from Lewis & Clark College.
By then it was already too late. This was Oso's first inkling of the inertia this movement would take on.
"WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO?"
From the earliest days--in fact, from the moment he opened his mouth about it--the entire project seemed to have a life of its own. It was almost as if the project, the revolution, the essence of Free Geek, willed itself into being and Oso was merely being dragged along.
The next thing Oso knew, he was brainstorming with Michele Schmidt, another geek friend, trying to figure out how they could accomplish this monumental task. The idea forming was to take old computers, of which there are tens of millions piled up today, and toss them like grappling hooks to people across the digital divide. They could recycle the rest.
"I just drank a bunch of coffee and started brainstorming," he says, looking back on those heady days. "I thought, 'How can we make all this work without it costing any money?' At the time, I said, 'It will all be free and it will cost us nothing!'" Oso quickly settled on the first name that came to mind--Free Geek--and within 72 hours of his first remark to Follett, he had a web site, www.freegeek.org, up and running.
Oso chuckles now at his innocence, because he and the other geeks soon found that it would indeed cost something. And that money would come from an unlikely source; Jim Deibele the wealthy geek who started ISP Teleport and sold it before the internet bubble burst. Deibele gave the incipient group a $35,000 grant to see if their program was really possible. Oso found some retail space and paid for four months' rent. Then, with volunteer labor and $250 in bought goods, they remodeled the space and had a grand opening.
With that, of course, came media coverage. Not long after that, Free Geek was featured in a spate of media stories for which they were ill prepared.
"Something in the Oregonian literally said, 'free computers,'" Oso remembers. Chaos ensued. "The phone was ringing off the hook," he says. "In the time it took to answer the phone, the message box would fill up. There was a line out the door. The waiting room was packed. I was giving tours to twenty, thirty people at a time. I went from signing up seven or eight people in a week to signing up 250 people in three days."
In other words, people were screaming to become geeks for free.
That was nearly a year ago. Looking back, Oso can hardly believe it all. "It's so much further beyond what I thought I was getting myself into," he says, shaking his head. "I had no idea what I was getting myself into."
It's been a constant battle for survival, month to month, trying to make ends meet. But to date, Free Geek has recycled more than 24,000 pieces of equipment and adopted out 500 computers. They've logged 13,000 member working hours and have received funding from the City of Portland, the Samuel S. Johnson Foundation, and the Department of Environmental Quality, the last being for $41,000, without which, they wouldn't have survived the year. Now they are already looking down the road and wondering where the next pile of money will come from, or if it will come. More battles loom. But there is an inherent faith that what they are doing will succeed. It's a belief in the righteousness of their cause.
Free Geek itself is not a warm place. There are few colors apart from the wires spilling out of disgorged machines. Cream-plastic is the dominant theme. It is a workshop with bits of the microprocessing world laid bare everywhere, strewn around, loaded in boxes en masse for either use or recycling. Old machines lie everywhere. On one table, I see something that looks like a portable toaster with a keyboard attached.
"What's that?" I ask, pointing to it.
"That," answers a geek in the recycling area, "is a very, very, very old laptop."
"Oh, I don't know. It's ooold. It's 1980s."
In another room, some regulars sit around a table sorting power cables. One named Jeorn is a shy little 14-year-old who comes here after school. Another is Jayne, a janitor who is building her own computer. Across the room surfing the internet is Reverend Bill Sano, who has been with the cause since the early days. Here and there are people muttering to themselves. These are some of Free Geek's 183 volunteers and 557 members (those working towards computers).
But in spite of the obsolescence, the bleakness and the chaos of Free Geek, there is something else here you won't find in any warehouse, Comp-USA, or Microsoft office. It is a feeling of camaraderie, a sense that all comers are welcome to help the cause. It's like Barcelona in 1936. It's the feeling that here, at Free Geek, you can mutter among friends.
In this relaxed atmosphere, Jayne and Jeorn are eating a cake someone dropped off. Reverend Bill stops surfing to show me the Universal Life Church site, where I can become a reverend too. Oso's dog, Jake, roams through the room, begging for food. Then Reverend Bill puts a movie called "Warriors of the Wasteland" in a disemboweled VCR. It's a sci-fi film circa 1980, complete with otherworldly hairspray and shoulder pads. But this is cut off when Joern wheels out the "DiscoVision," a donated laser disc machine from the early 1970s. It still works and comes with a video about how to be a better car salesman. The key: smile and put the customer at ease.
Hanging out, watching DiscoVision and sharing in the joy of pure computing are a big part of life at Free Geek, but the frivolity belies the seriousness of what is being done. Because the geeks at Free Geek are geeks with a mission, geeks who are giving something back to society, and who are building much more than just computers. They're building a bridge to the future.
DEAD FREEK BOX ON A SHELF
Recently, Oso and the geeks in his charge launched two formidable salvos in their campaign to wire the masses. One was sent whistling over to Dignity Village, the relocated homeless colony in North Portland, where some 60 of Portland's "houseless" citizens live in tents on pallets in a flooded concrete lot. There, in a trailer donated by the city, is the village's makeshift office.
Ever since the villagers were kicked out from under the Fremont Bridge, they have been living here without even access to their own website (www.outofthedoorways.com). For villagers like Tim Brown, this was a double hardship, being relegated to the edge of both the real and virtual worlds. "I know for myself," says Brown, who is 23, "I get about 50 emails a day about what's happening in the village."
In the village office, I find two computers, one with a guy playing Mech III and another with someone working on the camp's meeting notes. I ask to see the computer donated by Free Geek, and the guy points to a dead Freek Box on a shelf. "It broke about a week ago," he says. "We just got these new ones out here." They came from elsewhere, though, and were bought for $150.
Accusations fly about who broke the Freek Box, either by shutting it down wrongly or screwing around with the roots and passwords. But for a month, at least, it let villagers check their email and the status of various pieces of real estate for relocating. Yet computers are so ordinary these days that even out here at the edge of the world, villagers are blasé about the Free Geek computer. "It was all right," one woman tells me with a shrug.
The other salvo Free Geek launched was at the Red & Black Café, earlier this year, where there are now two Freek Boxes-- two portholes to the world of information where we can liberate ourselves.
If it's true that coffeehouses are the crucibles of revolution, then the Red & Black is a fitting place for Free Geek's campaign. As a cooperative, the Red & Black is surviving well and just celebrated its first year. There is community organizing info all around, and a picture on the espresso machine of Che Guevara sipping coffee. He has a mischievous look in his eye.
Above the two Free Geek computers a sign reads, "To internet users: Red & Black maintains these computers for your use because we believe everyone should be able to access the internet." This is followed by a pitch for donations to get a DSL line, but the woman at the counter says it's not a top priority.
I sit down to inform myself and click on Netscape. I wait and wait. When Netscape finally comes up, I get to the site for my email and it disappears. I click on it again. This time I get into my email before it disappears again. The third time I manage to check a few messages before it kicks me off. I move over to the other computer, and the same thing happens. I try both at the same time. Suddenly the one on the left seems to be working, so I explore a few of the links: Chemtrails, the Black Vault, Rense.com, Nexus Magazine, and so on. But just as I'm getting into a good article on "Mind Control Slavery and the New World Order," it quits again.
Repairs are still somewhat hit and miss, but Free Geek is working on a system to keep its community access points running smoothly. In the meantime, the revolution stumbles on, with noble goals and sights set high. "The real long term thing," Oso tells me, " is that this project becomes a model--the model--for how you recycle and reuse computers." If the past year is any indication of what geeks can do when they put their heads together, he might not be far off. Oso regularly gets inquiries from around the world.
THE "M" WORD
In the meantime Oso and the others toil on, building their new vision out of old parts, working to open the doorway to the electronic world that underpins everything else. Keeping that doorway open is the rock on which Free Geek is founded. In his office, at Free Geek's command center, Oso leans forward.
"The internet," he says with gravity, "is the future of information. And an informed populace is a not a controlled populace."
This is the feeling that runs deep through Oso's work and is the end to which all those at Free Geek are working. It runs in tandem with the feeling that those who would control the computing world and the free-flowing torrent of the internet are to be feared. Free-thinking geeks across the world have a deep abhorrence of the new chip-based plutocracy. Inevitably, the "M" word surfaces. Microsoft, they whisper, wants to rule the world.
But Oso and the other geeks will not go quietly. Because whosoever controls the computers will control the world. And whosoever does not want that to come true must work to undermine or overthrow the system. Everyone must join the rebellion. Listen, and you can hear them, because they are coming, chanting
"Free Geek!!! Free Geek!!!"
On Saturday, November 10, Free Geek will be having an open house fundraiser at 1731 SE 10th, two blocks south of Hawthorne, from noon-8 p.m. There will be free food and live music from Jane Wright, sponsored by KBOO. To sign up, volunteer, or work towards a computer, call 503-232-9350 or visit www.freegeek.org.