Robert Horvitz

I was born on 4 April 1947 in New Bedford, Massachusetts (USA). New Bedford is a fishing port about an hour's drive south of Boston. It used to be the center of the US whaling industry. When I was 2 years old my family moved to Akron, Ohio. I had no brothers or sisters. My father worked in a series of low-paid jobs: as a forklift operator in a vegetable warehouse; a taxi-driver; a salvager of radiators and toilets from demolished buildings; repairman for a housing development; a lumber salesman. My mother wanted to send me to private school, but since my father couldn't afford that, she started working, first as a secretary, eventually as a stockbroker.

I hated Akron. It was a boring, dirty industrial town where automobile tires were made. I leaped at the chance to go to a private school in Massachusetts: Phillips Academy (Andover). But once there, I hated Andover, too. Nevertheless my classmates were smart and relatively sophisticated, and I got alot out of it. At that time I was naive enough to think that going to a good high school meant that I could skip college. But the purpose of a school like Andover is college preparation. I had gotten onto a conveyor belt without realizing it.

I entered Yale in 1965, planning to major in Political Economics. But I soon discovered that economics before personal computers was a lot like weather-forecasting before satellites: just hunches, with some statistics and rules of thumb thrown in to make it look like a science. So I explored other options. I had already worked as a signpainter during the previous 3 summers. I enjoyed drawing and was good at it, so I started taking art and design courses.

During my undergraduate years my fascination with television got serious. There was no chance to study TV as an academic subject at Yale - this was long before "media" became an accepted field of study in the US - so I began scouring used bookstores for anything I could find on the history and regulation of broadcasting. During the next 15 years I built a world-class private library on that subject and expanded my collection to the history of telephony and telegraphy as well. I sold my library when I moved to Prague in 1991, but reading these books was how I learned about media history and the development of electronic technology.

1967 was a pivotal time. Between my sophomore and junior years in college I got a job in a small firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, named Herman & Lees. They had won a US Department of Transportation contract to re-design the American roadsign system. My job at H & L was, first, to read every research report available about roadsigns and legibility. Then I made hundreds of slides for perceptual testing - to find out which arrow-head shapes were the easiest to recognize, which color combinations made signs most noticable in various landscapes, the most readable typefaces, etc. I had never been required to make graphics so perfectly as at Herman & Lees, or to compare options so rigorously. Design as an empirical discipline was quite a new experience.

But probably of greater importance was losing my girlfriend. Angry and hurt, I threw myself into drawing with a passion that had nowhere else to go. For the next two years, drawing filled most of my free time.

I graduated with a BA degree in 1969, and won a Carnegie Teaching Fellowship for the following year. In other words, I became a teaching assistant in Yale's art department (1969-70) and taught my own advanced drawing seminar. It was strange having students who were, a year earlier, my closest friends.

The following year I became an art instructor at both Phillips and Abbott Academies back in Andover, Massachusetts. Despite my dislike of the place, I wanted to understand how Andover worked from the "other side of the desk." Unfortunately, I figured that out in the first month, but still had to work there for the rest of the year.

I began exhibiting my drawings in 1970 - at the New England Drawing Society's biennial. A year later I had my first solo show, in Andover, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York took two of my drawings for their lending service.

In 1972, I had two more solo shows - at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and the Akron Art Institute in Ohio. And I started writing for Artforum magazine (an interview with George Kubler in the October issue, and a long piece on Alan Sonfist in November). I wrote more articles for Artforum in subsequent years, and in 1974 joined the faculty of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) where I ran the Visiting Artists program for several years.

In 1974 my interest in television gelled as an idea for a documentary film about "Let's Make A Deal." This popular yet outrageous quiz show offered an almost painfully clear view of the values and forces shaping television in the United States. Working with John Schott (director/editor) and Jeff Vaughan (producer), our 96-minute film "Deal" was released in 1977. It won several prizes, including Critics' Choice at the London (1977) and Toronto (1978) Film Festivals. Film Comment magazine called it "the year's most important social documentary." But as with most documentaries, it had limited success in theatrical distribution. However, it is still available on DVD and Netflix.

In 1977, John Coplans and Max Kozloff were fired as the editors of Artforum. In protest I stopped writing for the magazine, along with all the other regular contributors. In fact, I dropped out of the New York scene altogether. I became Art Editor of CoEvolution Quarterly (CQ), a west coast magazine edited by Stewart Brand, which was later called the Whole Earth Review (WER). For the next 12 years, I selected and published portfolios of artworks best seen on paper mainly conceptual art and photo/text documentations of "earthworks."

I also began to write regularly about "spectrum politics" and progress in radio technology for CQ/WER. So far as I know, my 13-page article "Tuning In to WARC: The World Administrative Radio Conference" (CQ, summer 1979) was the first major article on spectrum politics at the international level to be published in a general interest magazine. It inspired a 13-week TV series: "The WARC Report," produced by Willoughby Sharp and Liza Bear for Manhattan Cable in the final quarter of 1979.

Fall 1978 was my last semester teaching at RISD - for a while - as I was hired to teach a seminar on contemporary art at Yale for the spring semester of 1979. That was a great experience and I wanted to continue my contract, but during the summer I got another offer that was simply irresistible. The Exhibitions Branch of the US Information Agency assembled a travelling show for Eastern Europe called "The Artist at Work in America." It featured work by Willem DeKooning, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg and others. Part of the concept was to have "a real live working American artist" travel with the show, to introduce films, visit studios, give demonstrations and lectures and guided tours for VIPs. I was chosen to take the show to Bulgaria, from November 1979 to February 1980. A life-changing experience, it was my first trip outside North America.

Bulgaria was then one of the most inaccessible - and repressive - countries on Earth. Knowing I would be behind the "Iron Curtain" for several months, I brought along a high quality portable shortwave receiver. As it happened, while we were in Bulgaria, Iranian revolutionaries took hundreds of hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran, Yugoslavia's leader Tito entered the hospital, and Russia invaded Afghanistan causing President Carter to suspend our cultural exchange agreement. We didn't know from one day to the next if we would have to close the show and grab the next flight home. The exhibition's American staff - and the Bulgarian guards working with us, most of whom were susceptible to a military call-up - piled into my office every hour to listen to BBC news via shortwave. We were afraid of a premature evacuation, but our guards were afraid of being sent to "liberate" Macedonia (with whom Bulgaria had a border dispute) much as their older brothers had been sent to "liberate" Czechoslovakia in 1968. Our situation clearly showed the value of international broadcasting, and when I returned to America, I dropped everything to get involved in that medium.

Well, not quite. In the autumn of 1982 I taught contemporary art at MIT (in the School of Architecture), and the following semester (spring 1983) gave a similar course at RISD. But I also started reporting for Radio Netherlands' English-language World Service, covering "spectrum politics" and regulatory news for their award-winning "Media Network" program.

Covering regulatory issues related to radio interested me so much that I eventually became a public-interest lobbyist, even though that made it difficult to continue working as a reporter. My first serious legislative involvement began in 1985, when I tried to change the radio parts of the "Electronic Communications Privacy Act." We lost, but that fight marked my transition from someone just reporting on spectrum policy to someone working to change it. Another byproduct was that I became executive secretary of the Association of North American Radio Clubs (ANARC).

In 1986 I organized something called the Woodpecker Project. This was a group of 96 volunteers in 19 countries who monitored the worldwide interference caused by a pulse radar system in the Soviet Union. The radars were known collectively as the Woodpecker because of the distinctive sound they made on audio receivers. In their day, these were the most powerful radio transmitters on Earth. What made them such a nuisance was that they hopped unpredictably from frequency to frequency, 24 hours a day, with no regard for whether the frequencies they used were being used by others. This caused the random obliteration of long-distance communication for seconds, minutes, sometimes even hours, across parts of Europe, Asia and North America. It was particularly dangerous for aircraft flying across oceans. The Woodpecker was the most serious violation of the international radio regulations ever, and it had been going on since 1976, despite repeated complaints by dozens of governments. The Woodpecker Project tracked the radar signals, noting the identity of stations suffering interference, the time and place of the interference, the radars' frequency, etc. I analyzed the data collected and fleshed it out with information on the treaties and regulations that were being violated and the failure of diplomatic efforts to resolve the problem. A summary of our findings was sent to the US State Department. As I had hoped, they helped me get credentials to attend the 1987 World Administrative Radio Conference in Switzerland, as an NGO observer representing ANARC, so I could deliver the Woodpecker report to the ITU in person. A few months after WARC-87, the Woodpecker signals disappeared and were never heard again.

As the political thaw began in Eastern Europe in 1989, I joined Internews, a group devoted to using media technology in innovative ways to reduce international tensions. In the 1980s they were known for organizing "space bridges" - live interactive TV programs using satellites, like ABC-TV's "Capital to Capitol" series, in which US Congressmen and members of the Soviet Politburo "met" on camera to discuss current issues. I became Internews' "radio guy" and wrote a 90-page Local Radio Handbook for them to distribute in the post-communist countries. Those countries were just starting to consider the possibility of de-monopolizing broadcasting. To support that process I moved to Prague at the end of 1991, opening Internews' first office in Eastern Europe.

Speculator-philanthropist George Soros also wanted to help non-state broadcasting to develop in Eastern Europe. Right after I moved to Prague, Mr. Soros hired Internews to develop an "Electronic Media Program" for the foundations he was establishing in the region. Thus I became the Soros Foundations' radio expert. For the next 3 years I travelled around Eastern Europe and Central Asia, helping to set up and implement support programs for new radio stations. I worked with the parliaments of Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland on the drafting of new laws for broadcasting. I built studios for the BBC's Radio Journalism Training Schools in Prague and Bucharest. I ordered studio and transmitting equipment for about 80 stations, helped many of them formulate business plans, fill out license applications, pick antenna sites, deal with hostile/corrupt government officials, etc. Most of my time was spent in the Balkans especially in Serbia and Romania.

One project from this period is particularly worth mentioning.

In 1992 Mr. Soros was worried by the cut-off of communications between the Yugoslav republics as they moved closer to civil war. A German-American peace activist, Eric Bachman, approached him for funding to create an email system to connect anti-war groups in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and other parts of Yugoslavia, as it was no longer possible to make phonecalls between these areas. Mr. Soros liked Eric's idea but was afraid that "free riders" would inflate the telecom costs and turn the project into a financial "black hole." So his grant to the ZaMir Network (ZaMir means "for peace" in SerboCroatian) specifically excluded telecommunications. Unfortunately, money to cover the telecom costs was mainly what the project needed, so I contacted other donors and got $70,000 from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) for ZaMir's telecom costs. In that way I became ZaMir's manager. As the war in Yugoslavia worsened, ZaMir became more and more important. It was Sarajevo's only continuous link to the outside world for more than 3 years. ZaMir was used by the United Nations, the Red Cross, all news, humanitarian and refugee relief organizations, and thousands of ordinary citizens. I am more proud of my role in ZaMir than anything else I have ever done.

My work with Soros initially focused on creating radio stations. But the focus soon shifted to networking to help stations share news, programs and "lessons learned" and also to help the Soros foundations improve communication among themselves and with the general public. The Internet was the medium of choice for these applications. Mr. Soros felt the same; indeed, he saw the Internet as embodying his "open society" ideals. So in 1995 he created an Internet Program and I became the program's International Coordinator.

In 1994 I married a Serbian architect and within a year we had our first child. My wife and I agreed that when our son was old enough, she would go back to work and I would stay home to take care of him. That would give me time to start drawing again. We did that in 1997. I left the Soros foundations after 5 years of exciting but exhausting work and began drawing again. I started exhibiting again, too, culminating in a big retrospective in Prague in 1999.

Right after my retrospective opened, Internews called. They had joined with the Center for Democracy and Technology to launch a project that would be perfect for me, they said. The Global Internet Policy Initiative (GIPI) would work in developing countries where access to the Internet was hindered by telco monopolies, bad laws, censorship or economic disincentives. We would train local lawyers to work as reform advocates, help them organize stakeholders, support their work with parliaments to enact better legislation, etc. It really did seem perfect for me, so at the start of 2000 I signed on as GIPI's manager for Eastern Europe. Two years later I was promoted to Field Manager for all the GIPI offices. But GIPI was an expensive project and some of our sponsors thought too much was being spent on management. I lost my job in the reorganization that followed (in 2004).

I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do next. The time seemed right to get back into "spectrum politics." Packet radio had morphed into WiFi and grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry. WiFi validated license-free "commons" as a practical way to share spectrum among a large number of users. Thought-leaders like Lawrence Lessig, Yochai Benkler and Kevin Werbach made this technical "proof of concept" into a political cause célèbre "Open Spectrum." However, Open Spectrum seemed to hit a brick wall outside the United States, based as it was on a First Amendment tradition that most other countries lack. Nevertheless, my work with ANARC, Internews, Soros and GIPI made me think I could promote Open Spectrum successfully outside the US. So I launched Open Spectrum International in 2004. OSInt's first goal was to survey radio regulations around the world, to identify countries where WiFi was not license-exempt. Some of those countries might be persuaded to change their policies with the right kind of intervention, I thought. To support such work, I established the Open Spectrum Foundation, which now takes pretty much all of my time.

And that brings you more or less up to date.

POSTSCRIPT: The above was written in 2005. Some more recent non-art activities are mentioned on LinkedIn.