A finely woven Web

FabLab, an interesting and controversial humanitarian project in the Afghan mountains and financed by the US government, raises questions on the exploitation of scientific research.

 

Design / Francesca Recchia

This article was originally published in Domus 953, December 2011

Back in 2000, hackers around the world started using tubes of Pringles potato chips (at least, those parts of the world that had access to Pringles, thanks to large multinationals) to make waveguide antennas ("cantennas") that pick up parts of the electromagnetic spectrum which are outside the control of private license or government regulations. In other words, they exploited Pringles-tube antennas to provide an alternative means of access to the Internet. As one example of its potential, a few years ago "computer pirates" employed this method in São Paulo, Brazil, to wipe their colleagues' personal details from police archives after they had been arrested for poking their noses into computer data that did not concern them.

This is just one of many examples of DIY Internet access, and such underground experimentation is attracting increasing attention from politicians and high science. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is one institution that has shown particular interest in the potential of developing informal means of access to the Web. A federal agency of the US Congress, the NSF funds 20 percent of the scientific research conducted in American colleges and universities. Since it was formed in the 1950s, its mission has been to preserve the United States' leadership in scientific progress by backing pioneers who might discover new frontiers of knowledge.

Parabolic reflectors built using FabFi’s open-source system.

In 2009 the NSF-financed FabLab, a research group affiliated to MIT, to set up a FabFi network in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. FabFi is a radiowave transmission and reception system that can create alternative and reliable communication networks even in adverse environmental (and geopolitical) conditions. The idea behind FabLab is to develop low-cost communication tools from locally sourced materials and provide an alternative Internet-access system to communities that are politically or geographically isolated. FabLab's latest mission is to promote a literacy programme that furthers the local development of social and technological capital.

Initially the parabolic reflectors were made of wood or acrylic. Reflective materials included chicken wire, woven stainless steel mesh and windscreens. Subsequently, personalised versions appeared made out of locally sourced scrap materials, costing less than three US dollars.

In an article on FabFi published in the New York Times, James Glanz and John Markoff ponder what may lie behind the project. Humanitarian arguments on empowering deprived communities give the us government an excuse to provide communication tools and Internet access to insurgent groups in Afghanistan's notoriously impervious mountains, helping them to oppose the Taleban and support the arduous mission of constructing/exporting democracy.

 
The idea behind FabLab is to develop low-cost communication tools from locally sourced materials and provide an alternative Internet-access system to communities that are politically or geographically isolated.
 

Parabolic reflectors built using FabFi’s open-source system.

FabLab responded by posting costs and expenses and, among other things, measuring the project's success by the fact that many of the Afghan participants, who were students when FabFi was first set up, are now independent technological entrepreneurs and often consultants, paid handsomely by ISAF forces. We all know that scientific research is never innocent—and can it even afford to be during a recession? The truth (probably) lies somewhere in the middle.

Parabolic reflectors built using FabFi’s open-source system.

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