Alison Powell interviewed by Rachel O’Dwyer (Part 2).
Alison Powell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media & Communications in the London School of Economics. Her research examines the history and future of openness within new media. Alison’s research explores open-source cultures including community wireless networks, free software advocates and people interested in open sourcing knowledge including hardware design. Alison was involved in Île Sans Fil, a Montreal organisation founded in 2003 and committed to spreading Wi-Fi across the city.
The Peer-to-Peer City
I interviewed Alison last month during IAMCR in Montreal, Canada. In part one of this interview we spoke about the Community Wireless Network (CWN) Île Sans Fil in Montreal and the limited role of technologies in cultivating a p2p society . In this part of our interview, we spoke about Alison’s work on the peer-to-peer city, an ‘alternative’ participatory governance model for cities that includes practices such as community networks, citizen science and citizen data collection operating alongside more hierarchical imaginaries of the ‘smart city’ or the data city. You can listen to a more detailed description of this concept in Alison’s Talk in Maynooth University Alison Powell – Coding alternative modes of governance: ‘Smart cities’ to ‘data cities’ from The Programmable City on Vimeo.
What drew you to the idea of the p2p city?
I think many cities exist simultaneously. Describing the p2p city is describing one version of the city that exists alongside many others. At the moment I find investigating the p2p city is partly a form of therapy and partly a form of research. It’s partly a form of therapy because I live in Central London, and if you live in Central London at this moment in history there’s such a stratification of the city in economic, political and social terms that it’s almost dizzying. The form of therapy I engage in is to try to find ways that people are not only creating interesting community projects – because this can also be quite retrogressive as in ‘we’re going to construct our own insular community against the outside world and that’s the scale we’re going to live at’ – but also seeking forms of exchange and interchange that, like Île Sans Fil, are imagining the city in a different way and linking things up in a different way, and making pathways between students and community organisations and mobile workers. All of those constellations and ways of thinking about the city were really interesting. I’m on the hunt for more evidence of those p2p cities, where there is another kind of relationship being made between different entities in the city at the same time as we are witnessing this incredible consolidation and hierarchisation of urban resources.
You mentioned something like this at the end of the panel [Data and Democracy] on Monday when you were speaking about the 596 acres project in New York. This hope that anyone working in p2p probably has that there are still enclaves of resistance that we can point to
We had another discussion of resistance this morning, which was about how resistance was changing. And I was trying to provoke people in my group into discussing how resistance is changing by saying that ‘maybe the current situation indicates that we cant have resistance anymore because we don’t have hegemony anymore. We’re not being oppressed from only one place and power is distributed.’ We had this really interesting discussion about how there are always going to be small pockets where other ways were being developed and where things are being done differently. These appear and they disappear and they create a subterranean network of different ways of being and thinking about things and building coalitions and connections that can be mobilised in moments of political possibility.
Do you see that in London or is it very fragmented?
No I actually do see that but I also see a huge amount of frustration. There’s lots of people doing research and activism and artistic projects that critique the smart city, but one of the difficulties with London is that the people most interested in creating an alternative way of being in the city are having to leave the city because it’s so expensive. So I don’t know for that particular city… I’m continuing to try and notice what else is going on and to keep track of different kinds of interventions. There’s been very interesting housing action that’s forming a p2p city because there’s lots of squats and migrant justice work, so housing seems to be something that’s drawing people together and lots of people are organising around housing in different parts of the city in different ways and they’re starting to speak to each other.
I think you’re right that some of the more interesting work around the p2p city is around housing and physical space more so than any kind of technological activism. I’m thinking the amazing work that the PAH has done in Spain, for example, that’s been quite inspirational in Dublin, in terms of people developing strategies to collectively organise against mortgage evictions, rising house prices, rising rents and so on. And p2p technologies are a part of that work but not the primary agenda.
I also think that it’s not technology activism. I think that technology activism is now so heavily colonised by capital and what the technology industry has become that what we will find in p2p cities is probably not necessarily technology activism in the way that community wireless was applying technology as a way of illustrating a different way of having a city. What we might see now is an issue such as housing or economic justice that is itself an organising framework and we’ll see technology used as a way to create links and develop an operational structure for that to happen.
Community radio has been around for 100 years. So that’s inspirational, not just to look at the emergent technology but how already existing technologies can be re-appropriated and ‘commoned’. For example, there’s still a good knowledge base for how to use radio. Pirate radio and community radio stations are another manifestation of the p2p city but they’re completely under the radar. And pirate radio communities have really interesting technologies because they have to have redundancy because the police can shut down their system at any time. So they have quite distributed technological arrangements but they also have really radical social arrangements because they have to be willing to get arrested and have somebody else run the station or have the station go down and come back up someplace else so these are also interesting things to think about and learn from. We can be as innovative as we want with the technology, but we also want to be very innovative with its use and employment and be very open to the different ways that stuff is used.