Technology has been playing an important role in new wave of protest, from Arab Spring to Occupy Central. These technologies can be divided up into two categories: Those used by the authorities (long range acoustic devices, water cannons, active denial systems, stingrays, etc) and those used by protestors (social networks and DIY protection gear). There is a huge disparity between the amount of technologies used by the authorities and the technologies available to protesters and activists during protests and riots. That gap is only getting wider.
While social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Firechat have played important roles in allowing activists to organize and spread messages, we found one fact to be extremely interesting. During the Arab Spring movement, the highest levels of participation were seen during periods of internet blackouts. This happened because, besides being an early adopter, young, and a digital native... the modern protester believes that connectivity is a basic human right.
The future of technology in protests looks dark. India has been testing drones mounted with pepper spray and North Dakota is recently the first state in the U.S. that legalized police use of drones fitted with tasers. How can the global community retain the right to free speech and public assembly in a safe and effective manner? How can we level the technological playing field for activists and the general population?
Could we develop open source devices to help activists communicate during a network blackout or to aid protesters to avoid conflict with the authorities? As designers, we find this to be a very compelling challenge. We are interested in the technologies that could help to start this conversation.
The Backslash kit is a series of functional devices designed for protests and riots of the future. Created through the lens of critical design, Backslash aims to retain the right to connect in protest sites through disruptive innovation and the creative appropriation of existing technologies. The range of devices include a smart bandana for embedding hidden messages and public keys, independently networked wearable devices, personal blackbox devices to register abuse of law enforcement and fast deployment routers for off grid communication.
Aside from the kit and at it’s core, Backslash is about creating a space to explore and research the tense relationship between protests and technology and a space to cultivate dialogue about freedom of expression, riots and disruptive technology.
Political, social and technological conditions vary immensely from country to country. Not every protest is like Hong Kong where the average protester has 3 personal devices connected to the internet. A one size fits all solution to these dynamic situations is impractical. This really highlights the significance of community driven design and the importance of inciting this discourse with the global tech community. We recognize that creative and trans-disciplinary approach at local hackerspaces and fab labs are uniquely capable of engineering innovative solutions that best fit the needs of their immediate community.
Backslash is not created with a political agenda nor is it a call to action. The aim was not to find a solution to these problems, we are far from that. Instead, Backslash focuses on design to provoke thought and to spark debate.
In protests of the future, how will the underground fight back?
"Más severa es la crisis, más poderosa es la creatividad de las personas” - Ernesto Oroza