Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Technology to Empower the Users

Technology can assist governments and corporations in their ends, often to detrimental and oppressive ends.  Some countries monitor and censor communications using firewalls and deep packet inspection.  Some companies produce software laced with DRM and antifeatures for their own benefit.

But there is another side to technology.  More individuals are using technology to put power back into their own hands.

These efforts are overwhelmingly grassroots and community driven projects.  In fact, it's questionable whether a technology imposed in a top down manner can give power to the users in any meaningful way.

This blog post is meant to give a quick introduction to just a few of the specific projects and technologies out there for giving power to individuals previously retained by those with power.

The RepRap Project

The RepRap Project is an active and so far extremely successful effort to bring the ability to manufacture consumer goods to individuals everywhere.  "RepRap" is short for "Replicating Rapid Prototyper."  At this point, the project is less than seven years old and has already designed from scratch four official RepRap devices.  With the proper software (all of which is free and open source), users can design a 3D model on a computer and "print" the three dimensional object using the RepRap in various types of plastic in only a few hours.

The 3D models that one person designs may be easily shared via the Internet.  At this point, the most popular place for sharing these 3D model files seems to be Thingaverse.  Not all of the models on that site may be printed using a RepRap, but the majority are, and all are able to be rapid prototyped in some manner.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the RepRap is that it is designed to be able to print many of its own parts.  3D model files of these parts are freely available on the RepRap project's wiki.  This has some amazing benefits.  The user has the ability to print backup parts for themselves, print the parts for a friend to ease the process of getting into desktop manufacturing, and modify the 3D model files and print the new parts so that s/he may improve and/or customize the device.

An assembled, functional RepRap may be purchased for under $1,400 at Botmill, among many other places.

GNU Radio

GNU Radio is a project to allow users to detect and analyze radio signals in their current area.  Almost any radio signal may be analyzed from ham radio bands to Wifi and television bands.  The project allows users even to decode digital television signals for audio/visual playback.

Whereas other means of detecting signals require a crystal to be tuned to each frequency individually in order to get a signal, GNU Radio allows for "listening on all channels at once."  This does require some specialized hardware which can be a bit expensive, but the payoffs are great.


Tor (The Onion Router) is a project for protecting users' anonymity online.  One of the greatest benefits the Internet has given us is the ability to speak and be heard without experiencing negative repercussions.  This anonymity allows Internet citizens to be truly honest about their opinions, which they may not be willing to express in "real life."

Tor is software which establishes peer-to-peer connections between computers, allowing them to use each other as proxies.  This allows users to engage in internet communication without a significant risk that somebody (such as and ISP, government, or other third party) will be able to trace the communication back to them.  This can be done both for clients and servers, allowing for freer expression than should be conducted without such protections.

Tor can be and has been used by political dissidents attempting to spread their messages as well as those attempting to publish and view unpopular information.

These projects should be the subject of several later posts.  They have the ability to change the world in positive ways by giving more power to accomplish useful things to individuals interested in making a difference.

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