NYU Alumni 
Magazine Spring 2011


DIY Internet

How one professor built a public network for everything from art to revolution

by John Bringardner / GSAS ’03

At the outset of his media literacy and contemporary art class last fall, professor David Darts faced a problem: how to quickly share large files with his 24 students. He’d designed the course to help students experiment with open-source (essentially, public access) software and social media to create collaborative art projects, but doing so in real time was surprisingly difficult. Darts, tall, polite, and mild-mannered—in a word, Canadian—assumed that someone must have developed a device for just such a situation. He spent days searching online, all in vain. So he decided to invent his own solution.

Starting with a small network storage device, Darts installed a series of open-source programs that, in concert, would broadcast a public Wi-Fi network. In essence, Darts developed his own portable, temporary Internet, accessible only by those within range of his wireless signal. The night after he first used it in class, the professor noticed that students had left multiple files on the server—music and movies they were swapping. He realized such a tool could change the way people connect online, whether at the corner coffee shop or in the shadow of an oppressive regime. Darts requisitioned his 5-year-old daughter’s lunch box—a black tin with a Jolly Roger on the lid—and put the contraption inside. The PirateBox was born.

Darts took the box to coffee shops, turned it on, and surveyed the room. Strangers on laptops nearby could see the network as an open wireless signal and, happy to find what appeared to be a free source of Internet access, would log on to the PirateBox screen, where they could anonymously upload or download files. Darts added a chat feature, allowing anyone on the network to communicate—also anonymously—and watched as users struck up conversations and shared files.

“Artistically, I’m interested in using networks in public spaces,” says Darts, an assistant professor of art education at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. A website he developed, Creative Tools 4 Critical Times, catalogs dozens of “culture jamming” and DIY (do it yourself) art projects designed to provoke a public response. Sitting in his office in the Barney Building, after politely shooing away a janitor who attempted to dispose of what was, in fact, one of his sculptures, Darts explains how he turned the PirateBox from a private tool into a communal endeavor.

darts developed his own portable, temporary Internet (above), accessible only by those within range of his wireless signal.

To begin with, he used open-source software, which kept his costs down, but also because it meant he could share his creation online. Last January, Darts posted detailed instructions on how to build a PirateBox on his website, under a Free Art License, which allows others to share the plans but prevents anyone from patenting a device based on his original outline. Crucially, and in keeping with his philosophy of openness, Darts designed the PirateBox to be completely anonymous. Unlike the Internet, where users can be tracked by the digital trails they leave in the form of server logs and IP addresses, the PirateBox keeps no record of who is logging on or what they are doing. In time, Boing Boing, the popular geek blog, discovered the project and sent a flood of traffic his way. And just like that, the PirateBox concept went viral.

“I’m fascinated by the culture of pirate radio stations of 1960s San Francisco, the idea of reclaiming a part of the spectrum that had been fenced off by regulation and commercialization,” Darts says. Pirate radio stations—his creation’s namesake—operated without a broadcasting license and represented a creatively rich stage in the evolution of the medium, he notes. The development of the Internet has followed a similar path. While its early days were unregulated, the dawn of the Web 2.0 period has been about commercialization and control.

That control was clearly on display this year in the Arab Spring. As the spark of revolution leaped from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond, Facebook and Twitter got credit for enabling protesters to organize mass gatherings. But then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak quickly showed the limits of such tools when he flipped the master switch and shut down his country’s Internet access altogether. The U.S. government now sponsors “Internet in a suitcase” programs to spread devices like the PirateBox in countries such as Syria and Iran, where they can be used to organize opposition movements.

The PirateBox project now has a life of its own, which was one of the artistic goals Darts set out to achieve, he says. Soon after the Boing Boing post, he started getting e-mails and comments from around the world. He created an online forum where developers could post questions and share their own versions of the box. One built a version that could run on a laptop alone; another on an Android phone, making it even more portable. “As an artist, I’m very supportive of copyleft, but man, I’ve lost control,” Darts says, with a laugh, noting that one guy wanted to build and sell his own PirateBoxes. “It’s cool that he asked me.”

PHOTOS courtesy DAvid Darts

Unlike the Internet, where users can be tracked by the digital trails they leave in the form of server logs and IP addresses, the PirateBox keeps no record of who is logging on or what they are doing.