saraht on 1 Sep 2000 15:57:33 -0000

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<nettime> robotic protest

check this out from the Institute for  <>

Applied Autonomy
Technology Review
September/October 2000       Mixed Media 


Artists and engineers make subversive allies

By Nick Montfort

With body-armored riot police poised like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in
front of a corporate city called Niketown, the uprising late last year
against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle seemed
science-fictional at times. If the Institute for Applied Autonomy (IAA)
has its way, the future of civil disobedience will be even stranger. This
team of artists has already engineered a new form of resistance: robot

Three disruptive automatons have now been manufactured by the IAA, an
anonymous group of artists founded in 1998. The group's Web site declares
that it develops technologies for the "emerging market of cultural
insurrection." While other researchers fashion robots to work in
environments that are physically hazardous to humans, the IAA is building
robots to speak out in areas where free speech has been regulated out of
existence. The IAA takes technologies that have been developed to serve
corporate, institutional and military interests and uses them to challenge
and subvert those interests.

IAA has so far built three civilly disobedient machines. The first, an
anthropomorphic mobile robot known variously as Pamphleteer, Little
Brother or Petit Frère, proffers subversive literature to passersby. Its
partner in protest, GraffitiWriter, functions much like a remote-control
dot-matrix printer-one that uses an array of spray paint cans as its print
head and the sidewalk as its blank page. GraffitiWriter has now been used
more than 200 times in seven cities by, among others, a Girl Scout troop,
a homeless man and a policeman. A larger-scale version of this robot,
called StreetWriter, is now in the final stages of development. Mounted to
a car bumper, it paints huge messages on the street in letters that are
legible from tall buildings and low-flying aircraft. Though painting the
sidewalk or streets may strike some onlookers as anti-social, these robots
are in some sense only imitating certain forms of corporate activity:
Reebok recently commissioned a New York City artist to spray-paint
advertising onto sidewalks and streets without city permission.

Pamphleteer was constructed to give activists an appealing metal face.
IAA's Web site declares that the robot is intended to "bypass the social
conditioning that inhibits activists' ability to distribute propaganda by
capitalizing on the aesthetics of cuteness." The designers even gave the
robot a childlike voice. A tongue-in-cheek research paper by the IAA
documents how Pamphleteer outperformed a human activist, distributing more
literature as it worked uninterrupted for longer periods of time. The John
Henry-style trial was conducted on street corners, but the IAA says
Pamphleteer is now ready for deployment in malls, government buildings and
business offices-places that ordinarily prohibit humans from distributing
pamphlets. The IAA wants to use this robot's technological allure to
critique the institutions that usually sell themselves with the same
high-tech glitz.

The IAA is sticking its neck out when it deploys its protesting robots,
since their actions leave their expensive electronics at risk of seizure.
For some protesters, such as those who smashed Seattle storefronts and
claimed that their destruction of property was nonviolent, deployment of
robotic allies that are subject to similar smashing appears to complicate
their position.

Other contexts invite additional complications. For instance, Pamphleteer
would be a strange sight handing out fliers at picket lines where human
workers are protesting increasing automation. Moreover, a technology that
distances human protesters from the repercussions of illegally marking up
the public pavement has some troublesome implications. Many means of civil
disobedience have emphasized personal responsibility for one's reasonable
but illegal actions; the IAA robots work against this trend.

The IAA robots do, however, represent an attempt to reclaim public space
and open up new means of communication. They also raise interesting
questions about the use of technology for control and disruption and point
out how the appeal of new technologies can allow people to act without
responsibility. Both the protested and the protesters should come away
with new perspectives after a hands-on experience with the IAA's
technologies of resistance.

Gutenberg's printing press powered the Protestant Reformation and the
American Revolution. Fax machines helped topple the Berlin Wall, and
e-mail is undermining dictatorships around the world. Robots are thus
stepping into a grand tradition of applying cutting-edge technology to
foster political dissent. bio

Nick Montfort is an electronic novelist whose latest interactive epic
appears at <>

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