Local networks for local interactions: Four reasons why and a way forward
First Monday

Local networks for local
interactions: Four reasons why and a way forward by Panayotis Antoniadis



Abstract
This paper frames the role of community (wireless) networks, and other forms of grassroots DIY networking models, as complementary to the Internet communication infrastructures hosting local services for facilitating local interactions, as drivers for a more convivial and sustainable life in the city. Today, only a few Internet-based global corporations mediate our everyday online interactions, without respecting our rights to privacy, freedom of expression and self-determination; they depend for their own sustainability on the exploitation of the immense collected information and design power toward private, commercial and political objectives. But when communication is meant to take place between people in physical proximity, local community networks can provide an alternative infrastructure owned and designed by those concerned. The paper analyses four key reasons, practical, social, political, and scientific, why such DIY networks should be considered as a viable complementary infrastructure for local communications even when Internet access is available. Through analogies with other relevant domains of local action, namely complementary currencies and cooperative housing, I conclude by addressing the dichotomy between local action and global coordination. I advocate for the co-creation of convivial ICT tools for building local communities, or better hybrid spaces of local cooperation, which are larger in size than the small in “small is beautiful” and smaller, but in many cases more diverse, than recent imaginaries of the “multitude”.

Contents

Introduction
DIY networking: A definition
Local networks for local interactions
Four reasons why
Epilogue: A way forward

 


 

Introduction

Global Internet platforms like Google and Facebook become more and more efficient in managing vast amounts of information, which makes their users addicted and dependent on them, subject to manipulation and exploitation. But when communication is meant to be local — in public spaces, at the neighborhood or even at a city scale — there is no technical necessity to rely on such global platforms for mediating local interactions. Alternative options based on wireless technology do exist. They can empower citizens to build their own local networks and customize them according to their own needs for creating hybrid, digital and physical, urban spaces that are more inclusive, more intimate, and more convivial.

For example, using a Raspberry Pi and a Web server, a “self-appointed public character”, as Jane Jacobs called those that sustain the sidewalk’s social life, can activate a context-specific social application that invites passers-by and local residents for various hybrid interactions. The coverage, and thus the relevant applications, can further increase through the formation of a network of such devices, which can organically grow according to the voluntary contributions by individuals. The presence of this invisible digital space can be announced through physical urban interventions: a visible container of the device itself, a QR code, a poster, even through specific action like artistic performances or face-to-face communication. Anyone in proximity can join simply by selecting the wireless network name, or SSID, and by opening any web browser without the need for credentials or other identification, except from being there, and without the need for any Internet connection.

However, the capabilities and special affordances of such do-it-yourself networking technologies are not well communicated neither to the public nor to application designers, their usability is not yet at a satisfactory level, novel governance structures and legal frameworks need to be devised to avoid abuses, and the complexity of the design space requires the combination of different skills and knowledge to enable informed decisions at different levels. As Ivan Illich (1973) predicted, “a society of simple tools that allows men to achieve purposes with energy fully under their own control is now difficult to imagine.”

Indeed, the most typical reaction of someone introduced to the idea of a local community wireless network operating outside the Internet is to ask: “Why?” The Internet is robust, fast, and ubiquitous, they argue. Why investing to build isolated network infrastructures, subject to various forms of abuse, inefficiencies, and failures? And why would anyone wish to interact with strangers in immediate physical proximity anyway? In addition, there are important economic and political reasons why such technical solutions are not desirable, which makes the process of bringing them closer to the mainstream even more difficult.

Today such common infrastructures, where they exist, are mostly seen as gateways to the commercial Internet and they have been proven very valuable in providing broadband Internet access in rural areas not served by traditional ISPs, like in the case of Guifi.net, Sarantaporo.gr and many others, and also in underprivileged populations in urban areas, with most notable example the case of Freifunk.net. On the other extreme, they are also imagined by activists as the first step toward an utopian vision, a global alternative Internet made by the people for the people (Sandvig, 2004; Medosch, 2015).

This paper argues in favor of a more pragmatic approach in which DIY networking takes the form of a “tool for conviviality” à la Illich (1973), meant to serve only local communication needs, as a complementary infrastructure to the global Internet. It can be designed in a participatory way promoting, instead of replacing, face-to-face interactions; allowing a social learning process for understanding the complexities of the design of hybrid urban space; and enabling a more sustainable lifestyle.

Of course, the DIY networking approach entails new challenges and contradictions that need to be understood if we wish to avoid the evolution of this utopian scenario into a dystopia, as it seems to be happening in the case of the Internet (see Trèguer, et al., 2016). However, this paper chooses to focus more on the positive aspects of DIY networks and explains how they can play a role in resolving some of the tensions in the global vs. local debate.

I start with a short introduction to the concept of DIY networking and then analyze in depth four different reasons, practical, social, political, and scientific, why it is important to render DIY networking technologies popular, easy to install and customize, even when the Internet is widely available. Finally, drawing inspiration from success stories in the domains of complementary currencies and cooperative housing, I point to a strategy that focuses on the creation of more inclusive hybrid spaces in localities affirming differences; and at the same time on the design of global “ICT tools for conviviality” that can be easily replicated, appropriated, and negotiated by those concerned.

 

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DIY networking: A definition

DIY networking has been recently used as an explicit “term” to characterize a variety of technical solutions that enable citizens to build and operate their own communication networks (Antoniadis, et al., 2014). These can range from large scale community networks to very dynamic ad hoc networks, built over time through the direct exchange of data between personal mobile devices. A DIY network could be also just a simple wireless access point (static or mobile), hosting a local application that is accessible only to those in physical proximity; an off-line or better off-the-cloud network (Dragona and Charitos, 2016).

Existing (wireless) community networks cover geographic areas of various sizes, ranging from a small urban neighbourhood (Gaved, 2011; Baldwin, 2011); to a small town like Leiden (van Oost, et al., 2009); or large city-regions like Athens (awmn.net) and Rome (ninux.org) or even wider areas like the extended Guifi.net network in Catalonia and Freifunk.net in Germany, both including optical fibre cables in their overall infrastructure. On the other hand, ad hoc or delay tolerant networks (DTN) have been mostly developed by the networking research community (e.g., Basagni, et al., 2013), driven mostly by the highly challenging intellectual and technical issues associated with the creation of networks over time, based on “contacts” of independent mobile devices. Finally, off-the-cloud networks are rooted in artistic and/or activist projects such as the PirateBox and Occupy.here (see Dragona and Charitos, 2016).

Around each form of DIY networking different types of communities were formed over the years with their own history, key actors, successes, and failures. The main motivation for using a new encompassing term is that despite their differences in scale, operation, and governance, all these networking solutions share certain special characteristics and affordances for offering local services:

  • the ownership of the infrastructure and the (potential) control of the whole design process;
  • the de facto physical proximity of those connected (within the reach of the WiFi signal) without the need for disclosing private location information, such as GPS coordinates, to third parties;
  • the easy and inclusive access through any Web browser (no special app or registration required) and the option to use a captive portal launched automatically when one joins the network (also called splash or landing page);
  • the independence from network providers and big tech companies;
  • the opportunity to interact privately within a local network, with the option of anonymity;
  • the materiality of the network itself; and
  • a new mode of communication that can attract curiosity and interest.

Most importantly, the term DIY networking attempts to emphasize a critical quality and distinguishing factor of WiFi networks: that they can operate outside the public Internet (Antoniadis, et al., 2014, 2008; Powell, 2006). However, not all DIY networking technologies are the same. In the case of wireless DIY networks, there are important to understand and distinguish both for their technical and social implications.

 

Examples of the required infrastructure to build a single-node DIY access network
 
Figure 1: Examples of the required infrastructure to build a single-node DIY access network with (left) an omni-directional antenna in a small wireless router and (right) a backbone node of the Freifunk network depicting a directional antenna (up) and two sector antennas (bottom).
Note: Larger version of figure available here.

 

First, directional antennas can establish a wireless link between distant locations, possibly many kilometers away. This link could be imagined as a very long cable along the imaginary line connecting two locations, which needs to be clear of obstacles (walls, trees, etc), a line-of-sight. Such links are often called “backbone” links since they establish the wider coverage area of the network and are not accessible by end-users. As a social infrastructure, such antennas typically connect like-minded individuals or groups that live far away, which would need to coordinate and agree to create a link between them.

Second, an omni-directional antenna, attached to a router, spreads “cables”, radio signals, in all directions around it and makes it easy for many devices to connect at the same time and independently from their relative location (sector antennas lie between these two extremes restricting the signal inside a certain angle). In this case, the distance between the small antennas inside our devices and the omni-directional antenna can be much smaller, a few hundred meters depending on the environmental conditions. So, omni-directional antennas are more inclusive and can bring in contact people that are not aware of each other’s presence. Off-the-cloud networks are typically single-node access networks with an omni-directional antenna that are used for local-only communications.

Third, omni-directional or sector antennas can be also used to create direct links between devices, which are easier to setup (the antennas find each other automatically if they fall in each other’s range) and thus the corresponding networks are easier to expand, but they are more costly in terms of noise and interference. The corresponding links could be backbone links between fixed nodes as in “mesh” community wireless networks, like Freifunk.net and Wlan slovenija, or ad hoc links between mobile devices that happen to be in “contact”, as in the case of delay tolerant networks.

The potential applications for the latter case are rather complex to work properly and make sense mostly for very dynamic temporal applications, here and now. Real deployments for “civilians” have been scarce until now, with the exception of Qaul.net, the only running system that combines all the above communication modes for both artistic and practical use.

As a last remark, there is often criticism on the use of the term “Do It Yourself” to characterize collective action projects, such as the creation of a network. Alternative terms, more “collaborative”, include “Do It With Others”, “Do It Together”, or “Do It Ourselves”. The preference for the term DIY is first practical, since it is a common abbreviation that does not need explanation. But it also stresses the fact that although it is not possible to build a whole network by yourself, you can indeed build by yourself, or yourselves, one of its nodes. And even if this node is often built using off-the-shelf commercial equipment, it is still placed on your space, owned, installed, and maintained by you.

 

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Local networks for local interactions

Community (wireless) networks have been thoroughly studied by social scientists the last decade. First, because they are interesting communities of people, analyzed for their organizational structure, social identity, rituals, successes and failures (e.g., Jungnickel, 2014; Powell, 2008; Gaved, 2011). Second, because the main motivations of their members to participate and contribute effort and money are not obvious (Sandvig, 2012; Shaffer, 2011; Bina, 2007; Byrum, 2015). Moreover, there is a significant body of literature that aims to answer the same question as this paper. Why are such networks useful and for whom, and how can design and policy help them to proliferate? (Powell, 2006; Lennett, et al., 2011; Sandvig, 2004)

All these questions refer to one or both potential roles of community networks: Internet access vs. local services. As put by Alison Powell, “last mile vs. local innovation” or as the members of the Air-Stream community network in Adelaide describe their network, ‘Ournet, not the Internet’ (Jungnickel, 2014). It is also important to distinguish whether a certain community network is “introvert” or “extrovert”, i.e., whether its services are available only to those that contribute to the network creation, typically technology enthusiasts, or to the general public.

Figure 2 provides a rough taxonomy of existing initiatives according to these two variables, which provides a good starting point for understanding their differences and similarities. Of course, one cannot capture the whole complexity of this ecosystem with only two dimensions. For example, Figure 2 does not give any indication on the size of the different networks, nor the quality of the Internet access and/or local services offered. Moreover, community networks like Guifi.net and Freifunk.net have several instances (islands) with different characteristics, for example between urban and rural areas. Moreover, such characteristics change over time. Île sans Fils is an example of a community network whose “secondary goal is [was] variously expressed as ‘connecting Montrealers to one another,’ ‘creating community,’ or empowering individuals and fostering a sense of community” (Powell, 2008) but today it has shifted even more toward its primary goal which as stated on its latest logo is “Internet without wires, free”.

In many cases there are also discrepancies between how community networks represent themselves, how they are perceived by outsiders, and how they operate in practice. For example, Guifi.net is a special case of a community network that aims to clearly separate the ownership of the network infrastructure, as a commons, from the services offered on top by the different members, including Internet access (Baig, et al., 2015). However, in reality most people and especially outsiders perceive it as a network offering affordable Internet access and this is how it is mostly used.

Perhaps the most well-known example of a community network focusing on local services is the AWMN network in Athens. Numerous local services, such as Wtube, Woogle, etc., have been developed over the years and they are part of the identity and “pride” of its members (Lennett, et al., 2011). However, the “locality” of AWMN is mostly restricted to the members of the community and for outsiders it is useful only to the extend that provides free access to the Internet (although Internet access is not included in the basic services offered by AWMN some, but very few, of its members do provide public access WiFi).

The focus of this paper is exclusively on extrovert community networks offering local services. Lennett, et al. (2011) mention that “There is tremendous potential for the creation of services and applications that build on municipal and community wireless networks. These include commercial applications such as real-time mapping, games and content portals as well as services intended to enhance e-government initiatives” and also “applications such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), streaming and Web-hosting”, but until today this potential has not yet really materialized and the question of the “killer local app” is still open.

 

 taxonomy of the most well known community networks according to the main service offered
 
Figure 2: A taxonomy of the most well known community networks according to the main service offered (Internet gateway vs. local applications) and openness of the community (introvert vs. extrovert).
Note: Larger version of figure available here.

 

Jonathan Baldwin (2011), during his master’s studies at Parsons School of Design in New York, tried to address these issues with the deployment of a small scale community network in Red Hook, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. He designed a collaborative mapping tool called tidepools through a participatory process involving local residents. This bottom-up process for wireless community networks has then become the flagship project of the Open Technology Institute (OTI) and was tried also at Detroit Community Technology Project. Today, there is an ongoing effort to replicate it in more areas through the SEED grants project (Nucera, et al., 2016).

However, there is a long way to go since as mentioned in the SEED grants’ 2015 retrospective (Nucera, et al., 2016), “When we communicate with different communities they understand networks as the capability to have Internet access. They don’t understand why they need to use local network functionality, if the Internet exists. They also see all our efforts as trying to provide Internet access for free. Their understanding can be described with simple formula: Mesh = Wi-Fi = Internet.”

The question ”Why?“ has also been constantly posed for the better understood Internet access scenario. Why should a grassroots community be responsible to provide such a critical service to citizens? Wouldn’t be a municipality a more appropriate institution? And why not let the free market do the job?

This question has been sufficiently answered today through the evolution of networks like guifi.net and freifunk.net that prove that community networks built from the bottom-up is an organizational structure that can produce Internet solutions of high quality and performance, at low cost. Moreover, they also facilitate innovation, knowledge transfer, civic engagement, digital inclusion, and foster competition in the telecommunications market (Byrum, 2015).

But here comes a subtle issue that has become relevant only recently, after most of the existing literature on community networks has been produced. Assume that community networks become a mainstream organizational structure and they do succeed in bringing affordable broadband Internet connectivity everywhere. To which Internet will they enable us to connect? To an open and diverse network respecting our privacy and right to self-determination? Or to the big data laboratories of Facebook and Google?

Indeed, it is not an economic paradox that Facebook is trying to provide “basic” Internet connectivity everywhere in the world for “free” [1], and competes with Google over “Stratospheric Internet Plans” [2]. Such platforms have the power to become the only online places that people visit even if it is to facilitate local interactions, with a huge price: our privacy and self-determination. This puts those DIY networking activists in an awkward position, fighting on the side of the global players for the same objective, Internet access for all, even if with different motivations and underlying values.

In this paper, I would like to highlight the reasons why DIY networking is a good idea even if the Internet is ubiquitous and free for everyone — a position that may appear extreme. While some years ago DIY networking was seen as a “counter power” to commercial ISPs, “disciplining the market” of Internet connectivity (Byrum, 2015; Lennett, et al., 2011; Medosch, 2015; De Filippi and Tréguer, 2015), today it could also be seen as a “counter power” to commercial Internet platforms, “disciplining the market” of location-based applications and services toward the common good.

 

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Four reasons why

In the following, I make two main assumptions: 1) there are different groups of people in physical proximity that wish to communicate through an ICT platform, exclusively or in addition to face-to-face interaction, 2) access to the Internet is abundant, subject only to costs and restrictions as in the most economically and technologically advanced cities in the world. Then, using representative examples of possible local applications, I analyse four key reasons why there are many different situations, groups of people in different locations, in which the ICT functionality needed for their communication makes sense to be hosted directly at the local access network and not in a remote server accessed through “the Internet”.

1) Practical reasons: usability, inclusion, speed, resilience, and sustainability

Take as a first working example, a workshop, a party, or a gathering, during which participants often want to share photos, videos and other material, such as slides and documents, and engage in various contextualized (in space and time) interactions.

Instead of using an Internet-based cloud platform, a more straightforward way to exchange information in such a setting would be to have the local wireless router hosting the corresponding service. People that would select the appropriately chosen network name, SSID, would be immediately part of an online community whose members are de facto in the same place. This is by far the most inclusive and convenient way to support the exchange of content between trusted individuals in a specific location; provided, of course, that the corresponding application is well-designed, robust, and free to install on one's own server. Such self-hosted applications, like OwnCloud, have only recently reached the desirable usability levels, and if they are optimized for use in such local environments they would present a credible alternative to Internet-based cloud platforms.

Indeed, Internet-based platforms, like Dropbox, have certain “objective” drawbacks for our working scenario. First, everyone should have registered, or register ad hoc, to the selected service, which excludes those that do not wish to do so; certain platforms have undesirable privacy, copyright or pricing policies for some, and others are reluctant to create yet another account on their colleague’s favorite platform just to share a few files. Such people might need to be unnecessarily excluded or forced to subscribe to a service they do not approve. Moreover, the network connectivity offered by a local WiFi network is always faster in both directions (download and upload) and more private than the corresponding Internet WiFi connection, which might be a rather important feature for large, and private, files.

Note also that, even if we have assumed above that Internet connectivity is not an issue, in reality, most of us have experienced connectivity problems in the most unexpected situations (e.g., visiting an institution with strict access policy, or a crowded place with a saturated Internet connection) that have forced us to share our slides through passing USB sticks over the table, eventually failing to leave the room with all the relevant content in our computers.

Seen from a long-term perspective, there are additional reasons why using a local network is a better solution when communication is meant to be local: resilience and sustainability. First, DIY networking enables the creation of networks infrastructures, offering alternative options in case of a natural disaster, for instance, as it proved to be recently the case of the Red Hook WiFi initiative in Brooklyn mentioned earlier during the Hurricane Sandy [3]. Second, when a local service is available through a central server (managing multiple such services) various energy inefficiencies are introduced. Many people might prefer to use their 3G/4G/5G connections, which are much more energy consuming than local WiFi, data needs to be transferred over longer distances, stored, processed, analysed, and so on. It wouldn’t be surprising to realize that more energy is actually needed by a global platform to perform the tasks related to its commercial activities than the actual service. A small local network built only to serve a small group of people could be made to run only on locally generated renewable energy.

Of course, energy savings/costs are not so easy to calculate since technology affects multiple dimensions of our everyday life [4]. And it is not easy to build infrastructures waiting for a disaster to happen. It would be much more effective if they have a role to play anyway. And for the case of community DIY networks, additional, political, social, and scientific reasons exist, as explained below.

2) Political reasons: privacy, surveillance, censorship, manipulation

From a political perspective, the more information and communication technologies (ICTs) play a central role in our everyday communications, the more critical it becomes who has authorship in their design, who owns the corresponding infrastructure and generated data, who takes important decisions, and according to which objectives. When these privileges are granted to corporations with an exclusively commercial orientation, the corresponding Internet platforms, even if they are very attractive and efficient in facilitating information sharing and other complex interactions, can severely undermine our privacy, independence, and quality of life.

To make this point clearer, let’s take another example of ICT-supported local interactions, this time between people that do not know each other, and/or they do not know that they are close by. Such applications that help people to get in contact with friends or strangers with common interests that happen to be in proximity, are often called location-based applications or locative media. There have been numerous, mostly failed, start-ups trying to develop such applications, with most notable exception perhaps Foursquare, one that managed to acquire the critical mass of users needed to make it meaningful.

In addition to the aforementioned practical drawbacks of Internet platforms compared to local wireless networks, this is a use case for which the choice of infrastructure has very important political implications. The reason is that for such location-based service to be offered by a remote Internet platform, often many miles away from the target location, all candidate users should have subscribed to the same service provider and installed the “app”. Thus, the provider should be a big corporation at the size of Facebook or Twitter. And it needs to be informed in real-time about the location of every person in the world, in order to know when just a few of them are in physical proximity. And even more worryingly, the access to all the additional data shared generates unprecedented knowledge and power in the hands of actors that have good reasons to use it against their users.

In contrast, all communications that take place in a local wireless network remain, in principle, local. The only way for an external entity to have access to the network is by placing on site physical devices connected to a surveillance infrastructure, which is very costly at large scale and difficult to remain unnoticed for long. Information leakages through individual devices, either intentionally by malicious users, or unintentionally through software and hardware backdoors, are nevertheless possible; those can never be deterministically excluded. But depending on the level of perceived risk, local communities can take precautions by engaging only in anonymous interactions, by regularly deleting the information stored, and more.

In addition to the significant psychological benefits, such as feelings of independence, this characteristic has become more and more important after the public awareness of the NSA surveillance programs and of the aggressive online profiling policies, increasingly discussed in the popular press (see also De Filippi and Tréguer, 2015). But privacy and surveillance are not the only threats posed by the global Internet platforms as mediators of our online activities. The political question is best framed around the “right to the city” concept, and if both the physical and digital are considered together, the “right to the hybrid city” (Antoniadis and Apostol, 2014).

Note that even if these online social networks have been positively connected with recent urban uprisings and political struggles for the “right to the city” (e.g., Gezi Park in Istanbul), they are themselves highly privatized spaces. Their owners have significant power over the design of important software details and the management of all collected data, ranging from multimedia content (e.g., photos and videos) to private information (e.g., location and profile) and patterns of activity (e.g., browsing patterns, reactions to stimulations, or “nudges”). This complete lack of ownership and control of these platforms on the users’ behalf poses significant additional threats. More specifically the possibility to manipulate behaviour (e.g., Tufekci, 2014), to exploit the labor of users (e.g., Fuchs and Sandoval, 2014) and other forms of digital hegemony (Dulong de Rosnay and Musiani, 2016), which, being less obvious, are more difficult to combat. Finally, the existence of complementary infrastructures for local communication can become really critical in cases of political crisis and exceptional situations.

However, as in the case of physical disasters, it is difficult to convince people to work hard against what is invisible (i.e., manipulation) or seems improbable (e.g., a coup d’état). So, there is often a need for an even more tangible reason why to build a local network. The alienation in cities is one of them, as discussed below.

3) Social reasons: collective awareness, contact between strangers, face-to-face communication

Since the design of global Internet-based platforms is guided mostly by commercial interests, it aims to create addiction and maximize online “stickiness”. Such platforms can thus undermine face-to-face interactions and our everyday contact with difference. They contribute, explicitly or implicitly, to render invisible “the different others”, even if they may be standing next to us (Wilken, 2010).

Moreover, for reasons of efficiency and usability, there is a high degree of uniformity in design imposed by the most popular platforms, which further threatens diversity and social sustainability. This tendency is reinforced by the strong competitive advantages that these platforms enjoy, due to the critical mass required and the economies of scale involved, which makes the innovation at the grassroots level more and more difficult.

Let us now consider another form of location-based communication, this time more long-term, between those living in the same neighbourhood. There are today a wide variety of online neighbourhood community platforms, like NextDoor in the U.S. and peuplade in France, but also Facebook-based approaches like the Bologna-based Social Street movement in Italy. However, the tendency of many urbanites to protect their anonymity and autonomy, by avoiding difference and interactions with strangers, appears as an important barrier for the proliferation of such platforms. “I don’t really want to interact with my neighbours” is the answer of many people being introduced to this idea. Should we accept and respect such tendencies or try to reverse them in the name of social cohesion, conviviality, and collective awareness? And which type of ICT solutions should we invest on for this, if any?

In this regard, DIY networking has some characteristics that could help designers to resolve the tension between anonymity and identity in more desirable ways than the corresponding Internet-based solutions, i.e., to create a balance between the anonymity offered by modern cities, and the social control in traditional local communities, by generating ICT-mediated location-based collective awareness with low commitment in terms of time and privacy.

The most relevant metaphor here is the sidewalk, which Jane Jacobs (1961) praised as a place for essential informal interactions between strangers that can achieve a very delicate balance between privacy and public exposure. If carefully designed, hybrid ICT applications that enable spontaneous information sharing between strangers can offer new ways to support the role of the sidewalk in contemporary cities, for generating local knowledge and a sense of belonging. But instead of relying on private ICT platforms managed by commercial companies, DIY networking offers the option to stimulate and empower citizens to use their creativity for setting up local freely accessible networks hosting context-specific collective awareness applications.

There are unlimited options for the design of such applications that are more or less close to the sidewalk metaphor. The types of information to be shared and the exact framing would depend on the context, but could include simple demographics (spoken languages, occupation, or gender); general preferences or location-based ones (favourite places, commerce or artistic activities, books, films, and music); multimedia material (audio, pictures, videos); opinions and thoughts on interesting perhaps controversial questions, even sensitive personal information since the wireless medium could allow for purely anonymous interactions.

But still one could always ask: “Why not host all these nice applications on a server accessible through the Internet?” In addition to the aforementioned benefits, including privacy, independence, and practical issues, in this particular context there are three additional unique characteristics of this technology that can play a key role in making it preferable to Internet-based solutions:

  • Since all potential users of a local wireless network being in de facto physical proximity, the option of anonymity, in addition to be technically feasible, is much less intimidating than in the case of global online platforms. This can facilitate playful and open interactions between people that would enjoy exchanging information with those in proximity but with “no private commitments” (Jacobs, 1961).

  • By construction, a DIY networking needs to be setup and deployed by someone that has access to the built environment: a resident with a well-located balcony, an owner of a central store, a local institution with the authority to install street furniture. This can ensure that the local network is designed and customized by members of the community, ideally in an inclusive and convivial manner.

  • Being tangible infrastructure themselves, wireless networks can be naturally embedded in other artefacts and urban interventions, such as a public display, a colored bench, a phone booth, or even a mobile kiosk, and they can create naturally hybrid spaces that encourage ephemeral participation and playful engagement. This also enables the inclusion of non-users, as in the case of the Berlin Design Research Lab’s hybrid letterbox and polylogue [5].

Finally, a local ICT infrastructure which facilitates the communication exclusively between those that can easily meet face-to-face could be designed exactly for this purpose. Thus, energy efficiency will not be only a result of the lower energy required when communication takes place through a local wireless network (as described above), but also a product of people’s ability to spend more time for their social and psychological needs away from their computers and mobile devices.

4) Scientific reasons: transdisciplinarity, boundary objects, and funding

Despite the numerous research studies and different technological solutions for the design of ICTs for communities, there is a long way to understanding the complexity introduced by the hybridity of space. For this, the question of interdisciplinarity becomes urgent. Social scientists need to become more aware of the capabilities of technology and they have to get involved in the design processes, while engineers need to get in touch with legitimate local social issues and their inherent complexity, going beyond simple optimization techniques and data analysis (see Antoniadis, et al., 2014).

DIY networks offer a great opportunity for people to understand important aspects of ICTs and learn by doing, in collaboration, the importance of design in shaping human behaviour, the role of (self-)governance, ownership and data management, and many more. Because of their novelty and constraints they can also become a very interesting “boundary object” that can facilitate interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary interactions as demonstrated by a series of related events (Antoniadis, et al., 2015) and different related communities formed over the last years that meet in various big events like the Transmediale festival in Berlin [6], organize workshops and conferences like Alternet [7] and the International interdisciplinary conference on DIY networking [8], and produce collective publications like the special issue on alternative Internets in the Journal of Peer Production [9].

Moreover, two new EU Horizon2020 projects aim to make one step further and develop a transdisciplinary research framework, bringing together researchers and activists from different areas, around concrete case studies that can benefit from the use of DIY networking as a means rather than an end.

MAZI (meaning “together” in Greek), http://mazizone.eu, takes the perspective of existing grassroots initiatives whose goals are social and political in nature, and explores ways that DIY networking technologies can help pursue them. For this, it follows a transdisciplinary methodology that brings together different aspects of design (engineering, human-computer interaction, interaction design, design research, and urban design) around the development of a DIY networking toolkit, and four concrete pilot studies: Berlin’s urban garden prinzessinnengarten and neighbourhood academy, Zurich’s cooperative housing and living project Kraftwerk1, London’s network of local communities in Deptford, and the nomadic group unMonastery.

netCommons, http://netcommons.eu, sets as its starting point the existing large-scale (wireless) community networks in Europe, such as Guifi.net, Ninux.org, and Sarantaporo.gr which are perceived today mostly as gateways to the Internet. The project brings together communities of mostly engineers and technology enthusiasts, and experts on legal, economic, political, and urban aspects that can help those networks to become more resilient against recent developments that threaten their existence, and more inclusive and useful for the local communities around them (beyond Internet connectivity).

A difference between the above EU-funded projects and the SEED grants initiative in the US mentioned above, is that the European Commission and especially the CAPS (collective awareness platforms for sustainability and social innovation) platform try to keep a balance between research and action, between the involvement of academic institutions and civil society organizations. Such transdisciplinary collaborations around concrete case studies can lead to very productive win-win situations: Researchers can have access to valuable data for producing knowledge on the role of ICTs and their design, data that today are available only privately by big corporations; grassroots organizations and activists can have access to this knowledge for promoting their objectives toward the common good and also benefit from the research and innovation funding that is too precious to be invested only in industry-driven approaches like the smart city project.

 

++++++++++

Epilogue: A way forward

The key premise behind this work is that one should carefully distinguish between the two main roles of a DIY network, Internet access vs. local services, if interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary interactions are to be productive and fruitful, and lead to the development of tools for communities that are both powerful and convivial (à la Illich). The focus here was on local services, as this is the role that is less understood. This lack of awareness reduces the motivation required to produce the appropriate tools that will enable grassroots efforts to compete, in terms of usability and marketing, with big corporations with enormous budgets and unlimited human resources.

This is the main reason why the arguments above rest on the assumption that access to the Internet is a non-existent problem. However, in reality this assumption does not hold, as in many cases like rural and disadvantaged urban areas, equitable Internet connectivity of good quality is still an unresolved issue. So, Internet access for all (Crowcroft, et al., 2015; Saldana, 2016), is indeed an additional reason why DIY networking is an important technology, and why people from different perspectives need to join forces to make it more accessible and better understood.

I propose here to clearly separate the two distinct roles of DIY networking, and conceive them as different but complementary services. This will reinforce various existing efforts that lie mostly on the one or the other side and avoid confusions and misconceptions. But to escape from the trap of “localism” (Sharzer, 2012), there is a need of a global vision and the necessary tools that can be easily replicated and customized, similarly to the concept of “Design global, manufacture local” proposed by Kostakis, et al. (2015). However, the global is a very powerful attractor, and also subject to various traps. Thus, it is critical to define the appropriate boundaries between these two domains of action.

This is nicely exemplified by the case of community or regional currencies (Kennedy, et al., 2012). More specifically, one of the most important design variables of a regional currency is its relation to the global economy, the so-called fiat/national currencies. Time Banks propose a completely different alternative model defining time as the main measure of value of one’s effort in community activities, and such an exchange is not possible at all. Other local currencies like Brixton and Bristol pound, as well as Bitcoin, are based on the value and prices defined by the global economy, and allow exchanges between the local and the fiat currency, sometimes with some “penalty”, hardly making them a true alternative. Between these two extremes, the most successful in terms of scale and impact currencies to date are mutual credit systems like the Swiss WIR and more recently the Italian Sardex.net (Littera, et al., forthcoming) that do not allow any conversion with fiat currencies while at the same time being perfectly compatible with the local regulations (e.g., tax payments in fiat currencies).

Independently from their design details, community currencies also face the same question “Why?” Why not just use fiat currencies that are perfectly capable of supporting the exchange of goods and services in localities, exactly as the Internet is capable to support local online interactions? The answer is similarly complex and multi-faceted as it is the case with DIY networking. It is important for this paper that, in this case, we need to very carefully distinguish between the global and the local, in order for the local aspect to be able to survive the global forces that try to undermine it, while at the same contributing toward a global vision, an utopia.

P.M.’s 1985 book Bolo’bolo proposes such a “realistic utopia”, focusing on the question of ecology and sustainability, suggesting a layered organization of life based on a nucleous self-organized neighbourhood, a bolo, of approximately 500 people [10]. Although utopian in nature, it has inspired numerous cooperative housing and living projects in Zurich like Kraftwerk1, Kalkbreite, and more (Apostol, 2015). A key principle of these initiatives is the “medium” instead of “small” scale of similar projects, and the requirement for diversity and inclusiveness in their membership. They have achieved rather radical objectives such as co-ownership, a significant levels of sharing of common spaces, and democratic participation, but neither complementary currencies, nor DIY “complementary” networks, like the ones advocated in this paper, are part of these co-housing projects.

A possible reason behind this lack of integration between different innovative forms of local action is the fact that none of them is itself well understood and they all struggle to gain followers, often interacting more with like-minded people far away than the oft-reserved “neighbours”. This brings to mind the two types of wireless links described above, which express nicely the equal importance of the global and the local, and the tensions between them. First, the unidirectional long-distance links are important because they help the expansion of the network and the creation of a global community around the design of the appropriate tools. And second, the local access points, with their omni-directional or sector antennas, are equally important because they can bring in contact everyone in a certain location, with no coordination and interests that are not necessarily common. They can help to raise collective awareness and engage into the city project those that are not already converted. End of article

 

About the author

Panayotis Antoniadis is the co-founder of the Zurich-based nonprofit organization nethood.org, which is involved in two EU Horizon2020 projects (2016–2018), MAZI — http://mazizone.eu, and netCommons — http://netcommons.eu. He has an interdisciplinary profile with background on the design and implementation of distributed systems (Computer Science Department, University of Crete), Ph.D. on the economics of peer-to-peer networks (Athens University of Economics and Business), post-doc on policies for the federation of shared virtualized infrastructures (UPMC Sorbonne Universites), and interdisciplinary research on the intersection of urban studies and computer science (ETH Zurich). Panayotis is currently active in the organization of interdisciplinary events that aim to bring together researchers, practitioners, and activists around the design of tools for self-organization in different areas of local action: DIY networking, cooperative housing, complementary currencies, social infrastructures, and community-supported agriculture.
Web: http://nethood.org/panayotis/
E-mail: panayotis [at] nethood [dot] org

 

Acknowledgments

The research leading to these results was partly funded by the EU Horizon2020 projects MAZI, H2020-ICT-2015, no. 687983. http://mazizone.eu, and netCommons, H2020-ICT-2015, no. 688768. http://netcommons.eu

 

Notes

1. https://info.internet.org/en/story/free-basics-from-internet-org/.

2. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601106/alphabet-and-facebooks-stratospheric-internet-plans-get-tangled-in-high-altitude-red-tape/.

3. http://techpresident.com/news/23127/red-hook-mesh-network-connects-sandy-survivors-still-without-power .

4. http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2015/10/can-the-internet-run-on-renewable-energy.html.

5. http://www.design-research-lab.org/projects/hybrid-letter-box/, http://www.design-research-lab.org/projects/polyloge-1/.

6. The “off-line networks” community has gathered twice at the Transmediale Festival in 2015, https://transmediale.de/content/offline-networks-unite, and 2016 under a new more accurate label “off-the-cloud”, https://2016.transmediale.de/content/off-the-cloud-zone.

7. See http://www.iscc.cnrs.fr/spip.php?article1912.

8. http://diynetworking.net; see also http://www.dagstuhl.de/en/program/calendar/semhp/?semnr=14042.

9. See http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-9-alternative-internets/.

10. http://o500.org.

 

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Editorial history

Received 6 November 2016; accepted 10 November 2016.


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This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Local networks for local interactions: Four reasons why and a way forward
by Panayotis Antoniadis.
First Monday, Volume 21, Number 12 - 5 December 2016
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/7123/5661
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v21i12.7123





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