Big Problems, Little Solutions: For the New Occupy, Size Is Everything

Queens, United States. 11th November 2012 -- Volunteers from Greenpeace and Occupy Sandy movement gather in front of a community center that will be used for a permanent relief center. -- After nearly two weeks, with power companies working around the clock the Rockaways, in Queens, New York, remain blanketed in darkness. Occupy Sandy has organized relief efforts since the immediate aftermath of the storm, providing food and water.
Photo: Nancy Siesel/Demotix/Corbis

This is the idea of Rolling Jubilee: Raise funds online; buy up consumer debt for pennies on the dollar; cancel it; set those in bondage free. So far the Occupy Wall Street offshoot has raised $200,000 to forgive $4 million. Strangers giving money to strangers to help other strangers: an inversion of the financial order, a genuine kindness, a great prank, and not incidentally a way to highlight how simultaneously abstracted and connected the world has become.

I know a guy named Dan Phiffer, who is helping the Rolling Jubilee people with their web server. When we talked Monday night, he was worried that as the news got out, the site would crash. He and I ran down the technologies in use. There were weaknesses and vulnerabilities, precarious linkages to outside services. If a throng arrived, might get swamped under the load. Then money couldn’t come in (bad) and the message wouldn’t go out (worse).
Scaling is everything. A site that works perfectly for a hundred people fails catastrophically with a hundred thousand. If you expect traffic you can’t just hope for the best. There are dials to turn, files to configure, variables to tweak. For big companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google, a huge portion of their annual effort is in scaling—ferreting out weak links and choke points and replacing them with finely tuned code on finely tuned hardware. Scaling matters in other realms too. The Obama campaign’s engineers built a get out the vote apparatus that got smarter as it consumed ever more data; Romney’s project ORCA suffered an epic system failure at the worst possible moment, and its candidate went down with it.

After talking to Dan, I took a Q train from Union Square and, by the time it reached the Manhattan Bridge, he emailed to say he had shored up The easiest solution was to use Amazon’s S3 service, a giant cloud drive that can send the same file over the wires a zillion times without melting. Now, he thought, the site was ready for the masses.

When I got home there were dozens of boxes of food in the hallway. After the storm, Occupy Sandy came, unexpectedly, to the forefront of relief efforts, tweeting furiously, moving food and doctors around as fast as it could. Desperate needs were compiled as gift registries on Amazon—the company no longer just an Internet retailer but a provider of infrastructure for all manner of everyday activities and mid-sized apocalypses.

As the scope of the Sandy damage became clear, many of the young mothers in my building, including my wife, started cooking and running hot meals down to the Rockaways. Somehow our apartment became an Occupy substation, with random people dropping off bags of rice or large cardboard boxes filled with pie donated by the Colbert Report. We put the pie on the balcony, to keep it cool, until somebody came to take it away. Mothers, man. Moms on missions. They started using a walkie-talkie app on their phones to exchange quick voice messages. Voices of moms were coming out of nowhere, babies chattering in the background. They were planning tomorrow, making lists, who will cook, who will buy meat, who will drive.

On weekends the streets of Red Hook have been jammed with New Yorkers desperate to help, but there are not always enough tasks to go around—the challenges of scaling reasserting themselves again. The makeshift food and clothing distribution centers at churches and community centers are thronged with so many volunteers that the network seizes up. If Rolling Jubilee catches on it may also find an upper limit to the help it can provide. Increased demand could drive up the price of distressed debt from pennies on the dollar to nickels and dimes and quarters. The IRS may change its position and come calling.
There is this sudden understanding that there will be more storms. There is the awareness that for those hurt most by the financial crisis, relief may never come. These are the new tools of response: apartments stacked with rice bags, a Kickstarter for debt-retirement, a self-organizing civic immune system. Occupy, which didn’t seem to reach critical mass as a protest movement, is becoming a welfare provider. It seems so simple: Make meals for hungry people. Donate money to get people out of debt. The network is coming together, access points and nodes and hubs and the lines of communication between them. The big question remains: Will it scale?

For the New Occupy, Size Is Everything