Last night, I became aware of two amazing projects that have exciting, almost revolutionary, ideas behind them.
If you read my blog post yesterday - and it seems to have been well received so far - you'd be aware that my mind is presently very much occupied with the difficulties of open communications, and especially the ability of governments to interfere with that. I don't believe that governments should have the ability to take away the basic human rights of communication - whether that be meeting in person, telephone, text message, or the myriad ways possible via the Internet.
By now we should all be fully aware that restricting communications has nothing to do with anti-terrorism or crime prevention, and that these despicable acts continue irrespective of how tightly communications are monitored or prevented. You're free to disagree of course, but my feeling is that the only effect of this is to push criminal activity further underground, and to make it even harder to police.
It's with this in mind that I am excited about the ideas behind The Serval Project and Buy This Satellite. The success of one, or both, of these projects could help to challenge, and change, the status quo immensely - beyond any concept that a Google or any other monolithic, revenue based organisation (including, of course, government) could derive.
Learning about the projects via Twitter, thanks to @iBleeter, I started my path of discovery. I was impressed to see both websites highlighting practical purposes for the projects upfront - these aren't purely theoretical, these are realistic and achievable aims that leverage very real technologies already in existence. I love finds like these, because they more readily seize my imagination and get me interested and excited.
Equally, I can't help but relate the projects to core ideas, goals, and dreams behind AuTechHeads. That concept of making it free to share information, to support others, and to make a genuine difference - this is surely the stuff we love.
So what of the projects? Let's do some brief outlines;
The Serval Project
"Communicate anywhere, any time … without infrastructure, without mobile towers, without satellites, without wifi hotspots, and without carriers. Use existing off-the-shelf mobile cell phone handsets. Use your existing mobile phone number wherever you go, and never pay roaming charges again."
These are the ideas that the Serval Project's website promotes up front. Lofty ideals, indeed - but wait! A real, practical use identified upfront! Enabling mobile communications in a disaster - wow. What a practical - and, in context of the Queensland floods, timely - idea. We heard of mobile communications dropping during the flood. We heard of substantial effort by telecom - and Internet - providers to maintain service in the face of very real disaster. We heard, too, of the failure of companies like Vodafone to effectively maintain that service at a time when it was really needed.
What a difference just this application alone could make. Living, as I do, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, we're accustomed to hearing certain stories. The hikers that wandered into the wilderness and didn't return on time, spurring massive man hunts. People missing during major bushfires. People falling off cliffs, conscious but unable to raise cellphone signals. This is a region which is hard for even the relatively good Telstra Next G network to cover entirely. I know personally of several blackspots, including the area where the Glenbrook train disaster occurred - even though you'd think that given the failures in communication that led to that disaster, these would have been addressed.
So as a Mountains resident, I can appreciate the potential reactive uses alone. I'd say this is not just desirable, it's must have for the concept of saving lives.
But let's consider their wider ideas. Mobile phones remain a luxury - a luxury that, sadly, it's evident even in Australia that people will forego essentials for. I've certainly seen press coverage of family neglect for the sake of mobile phones and internet, with people sacrificing the basic essentials like money for food to maintain their mobile phone "addiction". Media beatup or not, it's nonetheless mind boggling to see long-term dole recipients, pensioners, Austudy recipients, and so-forth playing Angry Birds and updating Facebook on their brand new iPhones. And these are the people who actually have some money, albeit not much at all.
Such is the nature of our materialistic, luxury-based society. Our mobile providers certainly realise that, and charge whatever the market will bear to sustain their ongoing profitability. For far too long I've said that mobile calls and data are way overpriced - even more so than ADSL and Cable Internet. There's been no real pressure for that to change.
A project like this will not change materialism and the other unattractive traits of capitalism. But it will certainly help drive the message of open communications as a human right. The fact that it's based on open source technology - and very closely related principles to the gaim/pidgin libraries which provide access to free communication through both reverse engineered and open source protocols - means that it's capable of massive accessibility, in addition to the potential for further adoption and enhancement beyond its original capabilities.
The project needs both funding and resources, of course, but I for one will do what I can, when I can!
Buy This Satellite
If it were possible to create a project more ambitious than Serval, this would be it.
"The owner of the world's most capable communication satellite just went bankrupt. We're fundraising to buy it. So we can move it. To connect millions of people who will turn access into opportunity."
Um. Wow. That terse statement on the front page says it all. The concept of a crowd sourced satellite is incredible. The mind fills with all kinds of thoughts, questions, and ideas when reading it. Is that even possible? I don't know - I don't know that it's achievable, even if possible. But I'd love to find out.
To really appreciate the magnitude of the idea, take a look at the About page. I had certainly heard the story of the guy who re-invented the windmill, having access only to the books he read in lieu of school, to provide himself with electricity. It's an amazing story, and one of several great selections to set the context around the project's goal: providing free, ubiquitous Internet to all, and revolutionising an industry.
It will take a lot more than the initial $150,000 they're seeking to raise. It's obvious they've thought quite a long way through this. It's in some ways an even more revolutionary idea than the OLPC project - a project which, amazingly, operates even within Australia ... poking some visible holes in our own Government's human rights positioning.
This could be a massive revolution. Imagine if the Egypt Internet shutdown were rendered utterly impossible by such a project? If no country in the world could institute censorship on the Internet? If information were truly free ...
Very ambitious, indeed. I feel The Serval Project has the more accessible and achievable goals - but why shouldn't people work toward such a dream. In my head, I could see that, if both projects were ultimately successful, it would be impossible to stop the open communication revolution.
Both projects have a massive journey ahead of them. They both need support and funding, like so many other great ideas and initiatives. I can't help but feel a sense of optimism toward both, though. I'd like to think that they will succeed and deliver. I'd love to live in that world.
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