Monday, July 16, 2012

Hacking for Solidarity: Broadcast Engineers and the Polish Resistance in the 1980s

In 2008 it was my privilege to visit a Polish friend of mine at his home in Warsaw.  We had become first acquainted back in the 1980s when it was his privilege, as a university professor of electrical engineering, to leave what was then a Communist country for a one-year sabbatical accompanied by his wife and two sons at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where I was also teaching.  Some people would have defected and just stayed in the U. S., but Andrezj (pronounced “Andrey”) loved his native Poland enough to return and work for a brighter future, which as it turned out came to pass in 1989, just before the fall of the old Soviet Union.  His sons are both thriving young professionals in Poland now, and he does not regret his decision to return. 

I was reminded of my friendship with Andrezj and his family when I read in a recent historical journal about a little-known aspect of the Solidarity movement in Poland.  Officially a trade union, Solidarity formed around Lech Walesa, a shipyard electrician who led the movement and became modern Poland’s first freely elected President in 1990.  During the 1980s, the Communist government of Poland imposed martial law and rigidly suppressed and controlled speech.  All media outlets, including radio and TV, were under government supervision.  As the Solidarity movement grew, however, a group of radio and television engineers joined with other technical types (mainly university professors) to do (what we would term today) hacking of the official radio and TV networks.  Pretty soon after that, TV-watching Poles began to see images of things like the words of the national anthem superimposed on the video feed of dull official programs.  Now and then, the audio of the TV channel would give way to music of the national anthem, a joke, or some popular song that had nothing to do with the official program.   At other times, Poles listening to their radios began to receive signals from “pirate” radio stations broadcasting information that the government did not want them to hear.

The content of the messages sent by what came to be called “Radio Solidarity” was not as significant as the mere fact that somebody, somewhere, was messing with the government’s system, and could get away with it.  These activities were not without risk.  While routine protests such as marches were usually punished merely by fines, the Polish government pursued the Radio Solidarity hackers more vigorously and put many into prison.  But as the movement grew, more volunteers arose to replace those who were arrested among technicians and scientists who were technically proficient enough to tap into the broadcasting network, or build and hide radio transmitters in houses of sympathetic citizens.  At one point, an underground flyer called for people to wear radio resistors pinned to their lapels in memory of two brutal police actions against Polish workers in 1970 and 1981.  Evidently, large numbers of Poles did so, and once the authorities caught on to this form of “resistance,” you could go to jail for it.

Opinions differ as to how effective Radio Solidarity was in aiding the movement toward democracy.  One industrial worker happened to be high on a crane one evening in Gdansk as a Radio Solidarity broadcaster asked his listeners to turn out their lights for a minute if they were listening.  According to the witness, he saw half the city go dark.  A precise assessment at this point is impossible, but the emotional encouragement that such activities brought to people who might otherwise have thought they were struggling alone against the system could have been invaluable.

The story of Radio Solidarity brings to mind the more recent social-media-powered actions of those in the Middle East who have attempted to free themselves from oppressive regimes.  Unlike the largely successful Solidarity movement in Poland, which not only brought about regime change in that country but may have contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union itself, the record of recent opposition to governments in Middle Eastern regions is more mixed so far.  Perhaps it is fair to say that technical means of communication in a political movement is necessary these days, but not sufficient by itself to insure a smooth transition from oppression to freedom.  If citizens do not have a clear, united vision of what a democracy should be like and what goals they should strive for, all the communications facilities in the world are not going to make much difference.  Revolutions are always a last resort, and while some can turn out peacefully, the result is always unpredictable.

Ironically, the limited nature of network systems in the 1980s may actually have helped Radio Solidarity reach more people than hackers today can easily manage to do.  If the Polish national TV network back then resembled those of most other totalitarian countries, there was basically one channel and one program.  That meant if you hacked into the network feed, you had the entire country as an audience automatically.  Today, of course, with the multitudes of various communications media—TV, radio, the Internet, mobile apps, social media, texting, and so on and so forth—it is much harder to reach an audience that is not already primed to hunt for a particular website or participate in a particular meeting, and so it can be harder now to reach large numbers of people.  But this problem can be overcome, especially in times when young media-savvy people are eager to help out.

We can be grateful to the Radio Solidarity engineers and professors who did their part in overthrowing the oppressive Polish regime and catalyzing the downfall of the Soviet Union.  And we can hope their example can be learned by those today who are dealing with similar problems in their own countries.  It seems, though, that freedom of communication is not a magic bullet that keeps away the real bullets a hostile government can use against its citizens.  Syria is a current bad example of this.  Despite repeated internal and international calls for the Syrian government to relinquish its stranglehold, its rulers persist in shooting thousands of protesters.  I don’t know whether anyone in Syria reads this blog, but I would consider it an honor to be in trouble with the government of Syria, and hope that those fighting for true freedom in that country can use all the means at their disposal, including electronic ones, to find a good way out.

Sources:  The article “Dissident Visions through Technological Use:  Radio and Television Solidarity in Poland, 1982-1989” by Carmen Krol appeared in the Autumn 2011 issue of “Antenna,” a newsletter published by the Mercurians, a special-interest group of the Society for the History of Technology.

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