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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 October, 2004, 07:58 GMT 08:58 UK
Hackers re-invent political protests
By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent

The fashionable city of Milan has become the staging area for a new breed of online social protests.

Virtual May Day march
Activists make their point with virtual protestors
Via della Pergola is only a 15 minute walk from the centre of Milan.

But in a sense the street could not be farther away from the glitz that you find downtown.

Here, you can find Pergola Move. It is a rambling old set of buildings that is part cafe, part restaurant, and part youth hostel.

But it serves mainly as a meeting point for a loose collection of Milan's social activist groups.

Activists have been squatting in these buildings since 1990. Now, they pay rent and use the facilities for their work.

Among those working here is Blicero, a computer hacker with a group called Reload.

He says the members of Reload decided early on what they meant by hacking.

"For us it meant basically dismantling stuff, reducing them to components, and trying to put them back together in a way that looked like something we liked more.

"We thought that this was perfectly parallel, perfectly integrated with the idea of people who were involved with social struggle," said Blicero.

"We felt that social struggle was about taking apart social reality and building it up again in a way that is socially more interesting, or socially more right for what we think."

Social points

Reload calls it Reality Hacking. The group uses the internet, for example, to stream its own radio content.

It used the online station to get people to participate in this year's May Day marches.

Blicero of the Reload group
If you have fun, it tends to drive your attention to the thing that you're doing, and maybe stop and think about a couple of things that are happening
Blicero, Reload
Reload then teamed up with another hacker group named Molleindustria, which means soft industry.

Together, they created an online May Day march. Virtual activists could march by choosing their own character complete with different hair colours and outfits.

But predictably, many had their characters march naked.

Molleindustria also supplies simple computer games for Reload's activist projects.

The games are politically and socially charged.

In Tamatipico, you try to keep your assembly line worker happy by making sure he gets enough rest, enough food, and enough time in front of the television. If your workers not satisfied, he will go on strike.

Blicero says that games like Tamatipico are first and foremost, fun.

"If you have fun, it tends to drive your attention to the thing that you're doing, and maybe stop and think about a couple of things that are happening," he said.

"I think the whole point is to make people aware of what they're actually living.

"And to have this, you have to create images, fantasies, idea, fun, things people can recognise easily and interact with easily and get near to you, talk to you, and then decide whether you're talking bullshit, or things that make sense.

Growing up

For some, like computer game expert Matteo Bittanti sips, what Reload and Molleindustria are doing is a new way of thinking about games.

Saint Precarious
Pergola Move hackers have created their own patron, Saint Precarious
Mr Bittanti is the driving force behind a series of books on video games currently being published in Italy.

To him, Molleindustria games work like a great film - you're entertained, but you come away with something more.

"I got a feeling the video game industry doesn't want to grow up," he said.

"They keep making very lame games. I mean the medium is so powerful, you can do so many things with it.

"And yet, you always end up with the same games, shooting people. I think you can do smart games that actually sell well, you have a whole generation of new game designers that have great ideas.

"And the technology's cheap, you can do very easy games that have a global view and can actually influence people."

Cyber-hippies

Others, like Noah Wardrip-Fruin, co-editor of the computer game book First Person, say these games are just that, games.

He argues that people who march in a virtual May Day parade are not involved in serious political activism.

"They aren't actually putting their physical bodies online. In a way, it's just a more dramatic way of them signing an online petition.

"And the same with people who are doing things like cyber-hippie work or things like that where they do these sort of minor attacks on military computers and things like that.

"But I think there's definitely more potential than that."

And the Reload collective is thinking ahead. It is offering workshops, and courses on hacking and on creating online radio stations that need just one microphone and one computer.

It is also exploring ways to use the internet to link up with other social activist groups, not just in Italy, but across the globe.

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production




SEE ALSO:
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