My speech from the Community Wireless Conference

On March 31-April 2, I attended the Second National Summit for Community Wireless. It was an amazing event. The energy was unbelievable. My one regret was that I agreed to do two panels. Because the panels were so long, that meant doing two thirds of the day talking when I wanted to be attending other things and learning what was going on.

And there is plenty going on in Community Wireless. Community wireless can include a local government, or “muni wireless” component, but it doesn’t have to. At it’s best, community wireless is about empowering a local community to use the tool of wireless intra-net and inter-net to reenforce everything good about the community. If the community owns the network, and uses it to create educational, social and other opportunities the members of the community value, then community wireless works real well.

I got to give the final plenary talk. I spoke from bullet points, and got really worked up emotionally while speaking (my voice actually broke on the last few lines). My attempts to recreate my speach feel overly wordy and intellectual compared to what I actually said. But I think it is still a valuable exercise to try to capture what I said and put up somewhere people can see. Hopefully, it will do some good.

Remember, we can change the world by talking.


First, I want to say how grateful I am to come out to speak at this conference. I love getting out of Washington to see how people use this stuff. As many of you have heard me say, ‘if this stuff doesn’t touch people’s lives, then it’s just intellectual games.’

I want to hit a few “uber-themes” to close us out. At the opening plenary, Mark Cooper spoke about how this is a revolution not just for us, but for the entire species. We are a communicating species, and we are talking about a technology that makes communication more possible than ever before.

Last Friday, my seven-and-a-half year old son asked me “Daddy, why do you have to go?” I said: “Because when I talk, I can change the world.” He replied “yeah, right.” Seven-and-a-half years old and he has already absorbed one of the central messages of our mass media: “you are powerless.” Even to suggest you can change the world is a joke.

“Aaron, I mean it. When I talk, I can change the world. I’m going to talk to other people who, when they talk, can change the world.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Aaron, I know a lot of people spend a lot of time trying to convince you that you can’t change the world and it’s dumb to try. But I mean it. You can change the world when you talk.”

So those are the stakes for our species. My seven-and-a-half year old son. Will he grow up to believe that he has power to change the world? Or will he believe what the media and the culture tell him: ‘You are helpless. To believe you can change the world is naïve and stupid. Being cynical is smart and sophisticated.’

It would be nice if I could blame this on some conspiracy of corporate conservatives. But it has penetrated throughout the supposedly liberal progressive bleeding heart of Hollywood. We used to make movies like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Stories about how people who cared about seeing justice done would go to Washington on behalf of their communities and work for the common good. Now we laugh at how naïve such ideas are. We laugh at how “corny” Star Trek was for those “ridiculous” speeches that say that we can just decide “not to kill today” and take it from there. Now we make shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I love Buffy, but who are the villains? The mayor, the lawyers, the people who have power to work the system. Anyone who actually wants power to do good, or who gets involved in the political system, is inevitably corrupted. Only if you are a smart, cynical super hero can you hope to kill the vampires. Not that it makes any real difference.

But when we talk, we can make a difference. Sascha spoke about the 3650-3700 MHz proceeding. We convinced the FCC to open 50 MHz more of spectrum. Under the cynical view, we should have lost. We have no power, right? We have no money to fight against the Intels and Motorolas that fought on the other side. But we worked the process. I, evil corrupt lawyer that I am, walked the halls and “lobbied” the FCC. When I needed help, I talked to Sascha and Matt and they helped draft a letter to the staff explaining why their proposal would harm community wireless and how to fix the rules to help. Then all of you sent in hundreds of comments. Effective comments that talked about how the work you do in community wireless changes people’s lives, and how releasing more spectrum would help even more. And it worked. The nasty, dirty, bad bad corrupting politics in the awful FCC that acts as a dime-operated vending machine for special interest did the right thing. Because we talked, we changed the world.

We have a terrible problem with social conditioning in this country. We have learned to associate the word “politics” with the worst of human behavior, with the fortunes of political parties or pieces of legislation. Or with the nastiness of day-to-day living. The science fiction author Robert Heinlein described politics as the necessary art of people living together. Now, we think of it as only the worst of human nature. “That’s just politics” we say when we see people behaving badly. “If only we could forget about the politics we could get things done.” We think of “political acts” as the ritual of voting for political parties that mouth promises we no longer believe, while our professional politicians denounce each other for “playing partisan politics.”

But choosing to get things done, the thing we want to do without “politics,” is an inherently political act. It is a choice, a conscious choice, to do something or say something to achieve a result. Every network we build without waiting for instructions, every person we educate, every time we put our own creativity on website, and encourage others to do so, we engage in a political act of consciously choosing to take our destiny in our own hands.

But politics has become such a dirty word, no one wants to call it that. Let’s call it digital divide. Lets call it cultural contributions, or education. Lets talk about making cool things or neat applications. But please, please don’t call it politics, because I know I hate politics. Because politics is bad. And anyone involved in politics is either bad or will end up bad. So I can’t be doing politics.

I think we need to reclaim “politics.” I suggest a new definition: politics is our desire to make a better world, and our deliberate actions done to make it so. That can start as small as wanting to unwire your neighborhood, or writing software documentation to help someone set up a node. You make a conscious choice to do something to make a better world. You have made a political act, and given yourself power. NEVER let them make you ashamed of that. NEVER let anyone make you so desperate not to get caught doing “politics” that you would rather stay helpless.

The next word I want to take back is “passion.” Everyone comes up to me and says “Harold, you write with such passion, you speak with such passion,” as if this were a surprising and amazing thing. You people stay up all hours of the night writing code or spend your weekends climbing towers to put up transmitters. How is that not “passion?”

Somehow, passion became the opposite of “reason.” We lost the good parts of passion: the energy, the fire, the willingness to feel. Passion became something that must be so overpowering that mere reason cannot contain it and channel it.

Worse, our most cynical manipulators have sought to substitute passion for outrage and anger. The sell us pre-made “passion” and “outrage” as talking heads on tv and the radio, urging folks on to hate the unbelievers. Again, a word that should inspire the best in us becomes a synonym for the worst in human behavior

So people learn to repress passion as dangerous. Or, if they feel passion, they are not supposed to channel it and use it constructively. That controlling and channeling passion somehow betrays your passion, which should be all about art or, if about politics, uncontrolled outrage. So people either suppress passion as too messy and immature, or reject reason as betrayal of passion.

Long before I joined Media Access Project, I learned to write poetry. I love the structured classical forms, such as the sonnet and the ballade. But many people think constraining poetry – which is supposed to be about truth and passion and all – in structured form is bad. We must write free verse! Dump all our emotions on the page! That’s poetry.

For myself, I find the structured forms that help to channel and direct passion produce much better poetry. Reason, coupled with passion, produces true art and true beauty that lasts through the ages. You can do that with free verse, but I defy anyone to tell me Shakespeare or Villion fail to express passion for all that the use art and intellect to give them form.

So I want us to take our passion and unite it with our talents and our intellects. I don’t believe in living crippled, cut up into little bits with “passion” walled off until it runs forth in wild emotion. Passion is our energy and enthusiasm coupled with our talents and our intellect. Embrace the passion. Tell the world you are passionate, and passionate about making the world a better place. And NEVER let them make you feel embarrassed about it again.

Let me finish this particular Uber-Theme with a story. One speaker before said he went down to help with the Katrina recovery and that he made people’s lives better. Why can’t we just forget about policy and politics, he asked? When he convinced a sheriff to let him climb on top of a water tower, it wasn’t to do policy or politics, it was to give the man a phone and internet access. Why do we need to make this all political and get involved in policy?

Let me explain what a political act going down to help after Katrina was. First, Paul, Sascha and I crashed a call set up by the FCC to coordinate the response from the Part 15 “industry.” Nobody knew about us, or thought much of us if they did. Never mind that folks in our community have more experience than anyone else in setting up wireless networks in hostile environments. Then, during the weekend, Paul and Sascha made another political decision. They decided not to wait for FEMA or FCC permission. They would not take deployment orders from the FCC’s designated industry contact. They would go down to the devastation zone and spread the word to anyone else who was willing to meet at Mac Deerman’s farm and start setting up networks. Sascha and I worked to raise money, Paul led a crew down, and word spread. We ultimately got FEMA credentials.

But we didn’t wait for anyone. We made a political decision to take matters into our own hands and act.

I agree that climbing a water tower is not the time to press someone to join us on net neutrality or push for opening the white spaces. But convincing a sheriff to give you access to that tower was a political act, and don’t let anyone shame you into thinking otherwise.

The next word I want to reclaim is education, and how it differs from spin. I keep saying we need to tell our stories; we need to have different ways to explain why what we do matters and how it builds a better world. We need to work on how we frame the debate. Every six months, I try to come up with a new way to explain why community wireless matters.

When I try to talk about this to other people they say “oh, spin.” Because, like “politics” and “passion,” the idea of saying things to people in different ways to help them understand what you mean has gotten a bad reputation. People think either truth doesn’t exist at all, “it’s all just perspective,” or that there is just one absolute truth and any attempt to say something different is “spin” meant to deceive.

As many of you know, I am a traditional Jew. In a few weeks, I will sit down with my family for the seder, the traditional meal that begins the holiday of Passover. The liturgy of the seder contains the parable of the four children: one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is ordinary, and one who does not even know how to ask the question. To each child, one gives an answer about why Passover is important.

My younger brother, a Jewish day school principal, likes to make the point that we give each child a different answer, because we have a responsibility to try to reach each child in the place where he or she is now. Even the one who does not know how to ask the seder tells us “you must begin for him.” We must reach out not with the same answer to every person, or only to those who already share our values and goals. We have a responsibility to educate not only the wise “child” who agrees with us or the “ordinary” child that shows interest, but even the “child” opposed to us or the apathetic “child” that doesn’t even know why he or she should care.

We must tell our stories. We have so many incredibly powerful stories. We must find ways to tell them that reach out and make sense to the audience. When I talk about the importance of community wireless and spectrum reform, sometimes I talk about creating jobs. Sometimes I talk about ‘digital inclusion,’ or education, or becoming the owners of our own media. Sometimes I talk about Katrina and Rita and how this stuff saves lives and builds infrastructure. Sometimes I just talk about how cool the applications are and what you can do with them.

Each of these stories is a true story. They are NOT spin. But I don’t tell people stories they aren’t ready to hear or that they won’t understand.

Most of all, I don’t feel the need to tell the whole story at once. I work hard not to let our opponents “pigeon hole” me and force me into some preset position. Because if people think they understand you, they stop listening – we’re all busy after all. If I am “just” about digital inclusion or “just” about competition, I just become part of the background noise of talking head chatter. I need to have a dozen different stories in a dozen different ways.

Because our struggle to make a better world must be a universal struggle. One that changes and betters the lives of everyone, not just the techie elite or the chosen few believers. If there is one failing of the “open source” movement that has crippled it more than anything, it is the failure to understand that real movements help everyone. As long as open source coders see themselves as separate from everyone else, because they will always be able to get around the legal and regulatory restrictions and the rest of the world that’s too stupid to figure it out can go hang, they will remain marginal. Because the vast majority of people cannot figure this out, and therefore do not see why they should care.

We must always remember that wireless is a tool, not a goal in itself. What we do has value because it changes peoples lives for the better. Wireless doesn’t create jobs or educational opportunities on its own. It gives people a new way to get information, to create new kinds of speech or applications, and share these applications with others. We can’t just “unwire” neighborhoods or throw up nodes or write code. We need to reach out to the communities around us, show them what they can do, give them what they need, then let go when they take it in completely different directions.

For myself, I can see we need the same transformation in how we make policy. In Washington DC, I often hear about “policy” organizations and how they can work better with “the field.” Nonsense! Policy drives deployment, deployment drives policy. If what I and the rest of the “policy” people do in Washington doesn’t help real people, then it isn’t policy – it’s just games. And if people doing things don’t help us fight for the right policies, then you will never reach your full potential, because the artificial barriers of outdated laws and anticompetive regulations the other folks in Washington want will make your job that much harder.

So I know I need the real stories of all of you. Everything you do. Every project, every new piece of software that lets someone do something they couldn’t before, every new hotspot or “unwired” neighborhood, every school that has wireless links to students at home, is another story of how what we do makes the world a better place. So we can fight for the right policies, the policies that will make it easier to make the world a better place, by bringing wireless broadband to people who need it, so they can use this tool for all the really cool and important things we’ve talked about this weekend. And I need you to care about the policies and fight for them as best you can, because doing so makes it easier to do the things you want to do to make a better world.

But beyond any policy goals, we need to tell and celebrate our stories for their own sake. We need to shout these stories to the world! We need to embrace them and love them and tell them not just to the folks who haven’t heard it yet, but to each other. Because each one of these stories confirms that we are a community, we are building a better world, not just in my project and my neighborhood, but everywhere. We are changing the world by talking.

At the same time, however, we must work strategically. When we make conscious decisions to build a better world, we should try to do so in a way that makes the biggest impact. The Katrina folks got real annoyed at me because I kept repeating over and over how we needed to document what we were doing and get the best pictures of people benefiting from what we did – not just of us climbing towers or installing software – and package all that into a glossy report explaining all the good we did. Because you can bet that the National Association of Broadcasters and every other industry packaged everything they did and ran around Washington telling everyone “look how wonderful we are. Now give us what we want.”

A lot of people got mad at me for that. Didn’t that compromise ourselves? Didn’t that just make us as bad as them, whoring ourselves for a cheap advantage rather than working for our ideals? Didn’t trying to use Katrina relief strategically undermine everything we stood for and made it all dirty and political?

NO! NO! NO! This is yet another place where the powers that be try to brainwash us into helplessness and ineffectualness. Why does telling the world in the best way possible, and using that truth to push for what we deserve, make it any less true or good or noble than keeping it secret and letting other people claim the reward? Coincidentally, the same people who tell you that if you tell your own story effectively and strategically you are betraying your ideals are also the ones who make out like bandits by your silence. So why are we listening to them about our morals and ideals?

When Thurgood Marshall took over as head of the NAACP legal team after World War II, he set a goal of eliminating “separate but equal.” Marshall knew that he couldn’t just walk into court and demand they overturn settled law, even an unjust and immoral law. He and his team came up with a plan. They took the cases of black schools that had no money and sued under “separate but equal.” They used the very law they wanted to tear down against itself. They demanded that school districts provide genuinely equal facilities. Did this “legitimate” separate but equal? In the end, faced with legal orders to upgrade black schools, Segregationists argued that they just couldn’t comply, that it was impossible to make the black schools equal to the white schools. “Oh ho!” Said Marshall. “So you admit that separate is inherently unequal!” And then he had them, where he and his team had worked nine long years to put them.

The world knows the result, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, but they never stop to think of the nine years of strategic action it took to get there. The willingness to make arguments the NAACP knew were a stepping stone to get to the real goal. The injustices and cases they had to decline taking, because those cases wouldn’t advance the goal. Would the world have been better, would Marshall and his team have been more pure, had they not acted strategically?

Which leads me to the last set of words I want to redeem: idealism and pragmatism. Again, the media keeps conditioning us to think of these as opposites that destroy each other. Idealism means naïve beliefs and impractical notions. Pragmatism means “realpolitic” and fighting for an advantage of the moment. “Politics” is supposed to be all about “pragmatism” and destructive of ideals.

Bullshit. I can’t say it more clearly or more forcefully than that. Bullshit. Just as we channel our passion through our reason, so do we guide our pragmatism with our idealism. Our ideals of building a better world are NOT naïve. They are not impractical or impossible. We can achieve them by working pragmatically – by assessing how to make them real, and using our passion to make conscious political choices that move us toward our goal. Step by step, node by node, community by community, we join together to work in the real world. We know we encounter obstacles and set backs, but we are pragmatic and do not let them dishearten us or deter us. We realistically and strategically set our goal, then use our energy and passion to make them happen.

That makes us political. That makes us a community and a movement. That is how we change the world by talking, even while the powers that be do their best to convince us we can’t possibly win.

A last thought. I have a deep and abiding love for the book of Ecclesiastes. Many people find it depressing, because it warns us that our all we have is what God gives us here and now. I find that inspiring myself, because it reminds me to make the absolute most of every minute that God sends.

Ecclesiastes tells us “better are two than one, for if one stumbles, the other shall help him rise. And a threefold cord, it shall not be broken.

If we leave here today as an unbreakable threefold cord, then we will have done our job here this weekend.

Thank you.

One Comment

  1. Excellent speech. I only wish I could have heard it person. I will take these words with me as I speak to others about community networks. Thank you for your efforts.

    Michael Keegan
    City Councilperson
    Hermosa Beach, CA

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