Sharing books you've read can be as enjoyable as reading them again, and for centuries books have frequently changed hands from person to person, library to library. But what if you could share an entire archive of books from the palm of your hand with anyone in earshot? I spent a week experimenting with a DIY PirateBox to see how it works, but first let's explore notable episodes in the history of book sharing…
Books were originally copied out by hand as manuscripts (which literally means "written by hand"). Creating one required only literacy and paper to complete the task, though both were often in short supply. Books therefore became precious objects and merely possessing them was a sign of wealth, status, and intelligence – even if you'd never read them! Just imagine that the emperor Charlemagne, famed for the promotion of education and the owner of many books, was himself illiterate.
With the advent of the printing press, the mass production of books and newspapers became possible, and people who were not members of the leisure class began following the news and sharing ideas. As literacy grew, authorities began to fear the spread of ideas and tried to stem the flow of information through censorship and book banning. But in countries like the Soviet Union, people found a way around the strict rules which had sought to reduce culture to state-sanctioned Soviet Poets. The Eastern Bloc got "medieval" and began (once again) copying out books by hand in order to share them more widely.
Samizdat was a system of distributed publication in which you received a book (often anonymously) and had to make a copy so that you had two to pass along (no one kept books for very long out of fear of getting caught with banned material). Many samizdat publishers had access to printing presses or typewriters thus increasing the amount of material in circulation. It happened that "stars" of samizdat literature were often more popular than the "official" cultural producers, unbeknownst to the autorities.
In this way, Samizdat made reality in the Eastern Bloc much like the fictional final scene in the dystopian novel/film Fahrenheit 451 where the "Book People" are forced into hiding to memorize all the world's literature since the act of reading had been banned.
Elsewhere, Bookmobiles began appearing all over the world, bringing paperbacks to places where they might otherwise not find their way. From European battlefields to US inner cities, books were about to go viral.
It's difficult to say exactly where the bookmobile came from, but they have taken many forms through the years, from the Epos floating library in Norway to the Camel bookmobile in Kenya to the global "bibliobox", people keep finding innovative ways to transport books. But my favorite has to be the "Weapon of Mass Instruction" from Raul Lemesoff, who built his bookmobile out of a decommissioned tank! Many mobile libraries receive their content from donations, so the chances of you getting the book you actually need are low because these libraries contain mostly books that others don't want.
However, the randomness of libraries can in fact be an asset, as the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said, it's what you weren't looking for that's most interesting. Random people are an important factor as well, which is why in places like Madgeburg they've created an "Open-Air" library. But with the expanding filternet that traps us while we are surfing on the the World Wide Web, it's easy to get caught in the "social media echo chamber" and lose that serendipitous ephermeral spice of life that sometimes hides in the book next to the one you were looking for.
Recently, while visiting a squatted social center in Istanbul, I happened upon a mobile library of self-published photography books that is making its way across Europe with the project Zines of the Zone (sponsored by the European Commission). DIY publishing has a long history, yet the main barriers to entry have always been distribution and the costs of printing, so you must consider that books which have already been "officially" printed and distributed were books that were forecast to make a profit, which are not always the books that challenge your thinking. You can probably bet that you won't find the Anarchist Cookbook in a bookmobile parked at your grandmother's retirement home, and that's no coincidence.
Today we no longer have to go to such lengths to share or publish books. P2P book sharing platforms like BookMooch allow readers to swap their books across the world via snail mail (I've exchanged books with readers in India and Panama!), and projects like BookCrossing can even let you track them. However, with digitized content we can scan and share entire libraries over the internet instantly while still keeping the "original" copy for ourselves. That way you're not faced with the heartwrenching decision of which books to keep and which to give away; you can share them all electronically! (as long as you don't break any online rules).
For obvious reasons, offline digital file sharing has become more attractive in recent years and one of the first projects that enabled people to share sans internet was the Dead Drops installation project which involved cementing USB drives into walls for people to anonymously drop files and pick others up.
Similar hackathons have resulted in innovative approaches to maintaining anonymity and avoiding detection on the WWW. Sadly, these tricks are becoming more necessary for victims of censorship worldwide, but this time around it's the citizens of Western Democracies that are coming up with ways to avoid their own spooks. It seems that anonymous digital content is the only way to read and share freely without having your habits tracked by the government. Imagine publishing your first novel or podcast using such methods? The artist Anders Weberg did a project where he only published using P2P technology, deleting the original once it was "airborn".
Put it all together…
The PirateBox allows you to anonymously share your own personal digital library with random people in your immediate vicinity via WiFi, no internet connection is needed. Therefore you can turn yourself into a human bookmobile everywhere you go, and that's just the beginning.
After stumbling across the PirateBox website, I discovered a simple how-to for a mobile digital repository that can fit in your pocket (there is also an app to turn your Android phone into a PirateBox). I couldn't resist and immediately ordered the required ingredients for a total cost of €40 and headed over to my local coworking / makerspace for a little expert supervision while I flashed the tiny router and installed the PirateBox firmware in an operation that took all of ten minutes.
The following week I experimented with the new gadget which allowed random, anonymous sharing and also featured a chat application, not unlike the now famous FireChat app or lesser known Serval mesh that allows you to chat with strangers in WiFi range without internet.
I loaded up the 16GB USB stick with about 2 gigs of eBooks, short films, and music tracks I like, and set out for a geek odyssey…
Once you plug the router in, the network becomes visible and all you have to do is connect. No matter what page you try to navigate to you always wind up on the the PirateBox homepage, from which you can upload, download and chat.
I got some people at the coworking space The Cube in Athens, Greece to try it out. We chatted with each other and someone actually uploaded podcasts. Streaming audio and video directly from the PirateBox is possible. It was quite fast at The Cube! We also installed a chess game and changed the SSID name from "Pirate-Box Share Freely" to just Share Freely. Afterwards Stavros, the founder of The Cube, played a little “online” chess with his son via the PirateBox.
That evening I left the router by my window plugged in, but I am unsure if anyone “tuned in” as there were no files added to it and no chats. Note: Every time you remove box from a powersource all the chat history gets erased.
Finding an external battery really changed things since I could now put the PirateBox in my backpack and carry it around with me. Perhaps this would increase participation, since the LibraryBox founder who just had an immensely successful kickstarter campaign, walks around with his in his pocket.
I sat in a crowded public square in Athens, to see if I could strike up a chat with someone, but in Greece, unlike many places nowadays, nobody was checking their smartphones while they were talking with their friends, even if it has been reported that technology brings people together more than ever, here people were connecting without gadgets.
It was refreshing to see that there are still people who talk (and listen) when they are with their friends, but it was not very helpful for my experiment; time to try it with the more net addicted!
I was off to Sardegna for an unWedding of some close friends. When I got to the rustic house they rented for all the guests, I immediately set up the PirateBox and told the international guests that although there was no internet, it didn't mean we couldn't share between each other, and some willing participants began uploading their photos to the "mini server" as it came to be called, including one of me giving a toast!
Though the DJ kept unplugging the power to rearrange things, guests did upload photos and others logged onto the box to see them. Finally some interaction! I also mentioned that there were some really good ebooks on the box, and also some films and music. The DJ logged on with his MacBook to cue up a few tracks from the pirate box, then we had the idea that instead of making requests, people could just upload songs they wanted to the pirate box, which they did.
After a few days at this seaside villa for festivities and celebrations that weren't tech related, it was time to go. I had gotten so used to having the pirate box in my bag that I forgot to turn off the external battery on the plane. That's where things got interesting!
On the flight back to Athens, I checked into the box towards the end of the flight. Some random people had discovered it and left comments on the chat. Who knows if they downloaded the wedding photos which I forgot to remove, but things picked up when I got to the terminal and started receiving several more comments from strangers while waiting for the airport shuttle outside baggage claim. I couldn't even keep up with the messages because I assumed no one would connect to my PirateBox when there was free airport WiFi, but I was wrong!
Finally arriving home, I saw the potential of the PirateBox. When I took out the USB key to examine the files, I felt a bit like a fisherman pulling in the nets. My little experiment provided a mélange of results, allowing me to hear new songs that played at the reception but which I was too tipsy to remember!
In addition to my music collection being expanded, I also had those premium podcasts that I wouldn't normally have access to (ironically, they were about education), and some JSTOR articles. Plus, it appeared that the Queeblo video (courtesy of Offliberty) that I had uploaded was viewed several times based on some chat comments I noticed earlier.
I like this personal cloud and have seen some of what it can do. One artist even made a permanent PirateBox installation as a monument to Occupy! London since there is no physical trace of the event, people on the site can log in and examine all the digitized artifacts. So the PirateBox, with a solar panel, can also be a sort of PopUp memorial.
In keeping with this spirit, I have donated my PirateBox to the local CoWorking space where it now sits in the lobby, collecting and distributing files between unknown people who pass behind, in front, under or through the space. Who knows where those wedding photos have wound up!
As Governments and corporations battle for the data that can be used to predict your every move, you might find yourself in a preprogrammed destiny where autosuggestions, algorithms, and censors determine your choices in life. This a a sure fire way to extract the most economic value possible from a society, which sounds like an economist's dream, but is that really life?