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Silicon Valley staff help paralyse SF with swarm tech

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Silicon Valley techs and engineers helped paralyse the city of San Francisco in a day long series of actions and surprises, which closed off freeways and most of downtown. Over one thousand were arrested - and the final total may be much higher - creating havoc as a demonstration against the war on Baghdad.

Protesters used lo-fi technology and distributed, or swarming techniques as the local paper the SF Chronicle characterised it, in this story, entitled "S.F. police play catch-up: Protesters roam in small, swift groups to stall city traffic".

Valley engineers took the day off work to join them. We saw physicists against the bomb and all kinds of engineers rallying in the city, and proud to tell us that they were engineers. For example, a software engineer called James who works at Apple, and who had this sign.

The extent of the many concurrent actions can be seen at SF's Indymedia site.

The decentralised and spontaneous nature of the action owes much to the experimental techniques of derive of Amsterdam's Situationists - who marry dada with an unforgiving critique of the media's collaboration with capitalism. These were repeated by their Manchester counterparts in England, MAP (Manchester Area Psychographic). A derive is a spontaneous "wander" - it's French for 'drift' - through a city, using such disruptive techniques as for example, taking a walk through Vienna using as your guidebook the A-Z of London. With such "playful-constructive behavior", you get to notice a lot more of the power alignments around you.

The Dadaists came up with the idea, but the Situationists added detournement - repurposing something such as this Bebe poster, and there was no shortage of Dada on display in San Francisco. One group held a Vomit For Peace.

Bob Dickinson, who recently led a derive in Manchester, was glad to revive the group after a few dormant years.

"We experimented with new techniques where groups went off on their own in small numbers - the Dutch call it swarming - and it was a great success. It became a history tour or a pub crawl, then, too," he told us.

The element of surprise was vital to the anti-war demonstrators in San Francisco today, and can be considered a success: the demonstrators were always one step of the authorities, as the SF Chronicle acknowledges. The tactics were honed in Seattle, in the landmark protests against the World Trade Organisation, but have been refined since.

It was strictly non-violent, which much have exasperated the authorities, for as soon as one action appeared to be getting critical (as this chain-in by A Jewish Voice for Peace) seemed to appear, it evaporated, and a new action appeared. At times as many seven at once were taking place, and had vans full of truncheon-armored, and teargas-armed cops veering from one corner of the city to another. Overhead, from 7am when the actions started, four or five helicopters hovered overhead: typically one or two police rotors, and two from the TV networks. Who despite their airborne hardware, didn't have a scope on the unfolding action. Half a mile away from the nearest sit-down, in front of an empty Macy's store, a plush TV presenter who looked like a tanned afternoon chatshow host was speaking to camera. Apart from the police, he was the only one on the street.

But hang on, isn't IT supposed to be about this decentralised technology, swarms, and stuff? That's where all the cool people go!

Well, not everyone. When Clay Shirky, who's written much about decentralised technology, was asked about the Seattle WTO riots he had something to say.

Helpfully Clay - who writes down everything he thinks and publishes it - has given it a web page on his website of harvested thoughts: Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet - subheading Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source. Look, it's all there: and this observation has a page of its own. Only this is very reactionary, and a case of not noticing what you preach being practiced in front of your eyes.

Clay, meet swarm.

And only yesterday Doc Searls was bemoaning the scarcity of Peace Blogs, observing: "There isn't a conversation about peace in the blogosphere to equal the conversation about war."

He brought up a link to one of Clay Shirky's "Power Distribution Curves" (whatever they are, but whatever they are is surely Very Important) to prove it.

Except, the Peace movement had paralysed and entertained a city of a million, and been reported around the world. Which takes a lot more imagination and courage than hiding behind a computer screen, and surely proves that you need to peer into Wetspace now and again - or at least out of your window - to see what's happening in the world.

People were communicating to each other to provide 16 hours of spontaneous entertainment for themselves and the city - but the answer isn't very sexy: it wasn't weblogs, it was phones. Indymedia and lots of amateur photographers have left records, but getting people to create this required time in meatspace. To get thousands of people to create such a spectacle, you might not really need weblogs at all. As a friend said today, it was nice to see this kind out and about, enjoying themselves, and away from their computers.

Similar demonstrations took place in many cities all over the world. It was quite a day. ®

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