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.
I interviewed Alison last month during IAMCR in Montreal, Canada. We spoke about the Community Wireless Network (CWN) Île Sans Fil in Montreal, the changing role of wireless infrastructure in reclaiming the city and why creating a P2P society needs much more than the right technical infrastructure.
ROD: You’ve done a lot of research across p2p, but with a particular focus on community wireless networks and more recently smart cities and open data. What drew you to research community wireless networks initially?
AP: I’ve always been really interested in urban communication spaces and in the ways that people appropriate different technologies within urban spaces to create their own identities and to create their own versions of the city. So I was really drawn to community wireless networks because I thought it was a way of remaking the city and adding a different element to the idea of urban life that was both collective and technological. The people in Montreal had this idea of ‘hacking the city’ as part of the way that they thought of the work they were doing. It was really interesting to work with them because they were interested in reimagining the city through community and collective projects and they were doing that reimagining through a technology project. That meant there were several levels. There was the level of the technology itself and the ways that people were using internet technologies and thinking about access to information technology or even thinking about how we distribute the computing network. Another level was thinking about how we change the way that we all live together in cities. Do we do this by creating a community organisation, partnering with other community organisations or having something quite rhizomatic that connects different community organisations?
ROD: When did you start the research?
AP: I started that in 2004. It wasn’t of course one of the first community networks, I think the first ones were in London. The people that did those projects – like James Stevens and Julian Priest – they were also thinking about transforming the city and they had a more radical perspective on the topological side of things, because from the beginning they were interested in building meshes. And they were interested in building meshes because they were interested in building a horizontal city. If you read Julian’s report on the Consume project in London, he talked about how they were going to make horizontal nodal cities that would overlap and intersect and be a model for a non-hierarchical way of communicating and being in the city. And of course it didn’t work, because mostly these things are visions; they’re creative projects.
ROD: How did Île Sans Fil differ?
AP: It wasn’t a mesh network.
ROD: What kind of a topology did it have?
AP: They developed a gateway protocol that transforms an existing network connection into a wireless hotspot. The gateway protocol is open source.
Their main innovation was that all of the authorisation for the individual wireless hotspots would be visible on the server. So they did interesting projects that linked the hotspots together. There was some information that was transferrable across hotspots even though each node was its own spot. The nodes were never linked together (meshed) but there was this idea that the network itself was one entity so they linked all of the different locations where you could get wireless access, mostly through projects where there were stories or information distributed over hotspots.
For example, in one storytelling project each hotspot had a different part of the story told by a different character and in order to get a full story you would have to visit all the hotspots. They also provided election information that was specific to the location of each hotspot access point.
Their idea of using the technology to link people together and to create a more horizontal city did not have to do with the topology of the network; it had to do with the applications and the creative projects that ran over the top of the network. The network itself was quite simple, just hotspots broadcasting Wi-Fi in each individual spot. The economic model was that they would partner with places that were already paying for Internet bandwidth and give people a completely ‘free’ (as in free-of-charge) way of managing access to that Internet bandwidth. So in the early 2000s when it was really hard to get Internet outside of your house, cafes signed up to provide individual hotspots, then some community centres and eventually business districts partnered with Île Sans Fil to pay for the equipment to install hotspots to cover entire streets. In turn that became a branding project for different parts of Montreal and eventually the city of Montreal created a partnership with Île Sans Fil to use their equipment and software to do wireless Internet access in lots of public locations. It was a way of rethinking the city through one technological possibility. But it was actually quite flexible. The activists were very flexible in how that happened; they wanted more people to become involved in learning how to build wireless technology in learning how to use it and they felt they were creating a very useful service.
Île Sans Fil Map
ROD: How has the community wireless network model changed since that time? How sustainable is it? For example, one concern about community wireless networks more recently is that they seem to be tied in with mobile offloading by cellular networks. If in the past we framed community Wi-Fi in opposition to commercial networks and as a possibility to build over the top services using VoIP, today it seems as though Wi-Fi is just a positive externality for cellular carriers to offload their data into free and public communication space. I’m thinking of something like FON for example, which is presented as a ‘mobile commons’ but also has economic partnerships with large network operators that allow these to offload their mobile data onto Wi-Fi spectrum. We don’t really know who we’re sharing with.
AP: I did a project in 2006 while living in Paris, which was about different political economic models for wireless access in cities at the time. That was the point when I realised this wasn’t going to be a long-term sustainable mode for people to gain access. What was more interesting was that this was a creative appropriation and playfulness for different ways of thinking about the city and about creative practice.
From the beginning, FON was interested in employing Wi-Fi access within innovative economic partnerships. They partnered with Free, the French telecom – so it was always an offloading model. If you have bandwidth you can send it out unknowingly as a potential resource for passers-by. The initial models didn’t work because places where people had sectioned off their wireless bandwidth for public use weren’t necessarily in places where people used wireless. And so that’s why it became bundled into lots of telecom offers. That was the point at which I thought ‘it’s not really about Wi-Fi, it’s more about what different technologies might let you do’. Wi-Fi lets you offload and share bandwidth but if you don’t know who you’re sharing your bandwidth with or why and how that might create a relationship between you and them, then its kind of incidental that you’re sharing your bandwidth; it becomes simply an arrangement of infrastructure. From my perspective it’s a lot more interesting when people start thinking about and representing the social relationships that underpin that. I’ve always been a little bit disappointed by the models that seem to be about unknowingly offloading/sharing. This might be good if we’re thinking about commons-based infrastructure, but to me they don’t help us to think through the cultural changes we need to make in order to amplify the commons-based community relationships that we already have.
ROD: How significant are terms like commons or commoning to your practice?
AP: Radio spectrum is of course a public commons so you should think about how to manage that from a commons perspective as opposed to a proprietary auction and command and control model. But I don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about the commons from an economic perspective because I’m not an economist; I’m a person who thinks about how people use technologies to tell stories about themselves. So when people start telling stories about commons themselves, then I start listening. I also think about communication commons because I’m a communications scholar and I’m interested in people’s right to communicate and their ability to develop and have their own voice in the world. That’s a different kind of commons, a ‘speech commons’ – the space of possible speech and exchange.
ROD: The practices you’ve described with Île Sans Fil seem to relate more closely to that model of the commons, more so than the Elinor Ostrum model of economic governance of resources outside of the state or the market.
AP: Exactly. So this idea isn’t as well developed in the literature. And where the p2p literature talks about the commons there isn’t as much of a discussion of this.
ROD: Sure. There’s definitely more emphasis on commons as an economic resource. But you have the work of people like Peter Linebaugh for example, which is more focused on commoning as social production and social practices. That possibly relates to your idea of the speech commons?
AP: I’m more interested in social production than shared infrastructure and I’m more interested in cultural and symbolic production than social production and I’m really interested in people not as individuals but as groups of people. I’m interested in the commons as a speech commons that can be claimed and used expressively by all and not just by individuals.
ROD: To come back to a point you made earlier, you’ve expressed some criticism of the mesh network approach commonly used in CWNs. Does this relate to your criticism of different approaches to the commons?
AP: I’m critical of mesh networking projects because I have a concern about over-determining technological possibilities for social and cultural change. And we see this in a lot of technology-led movements. What we tend to see is that people interpret the possibilities of a technology’s design or, as you said, ‘topology’ to be a model for social or cultural forms.
ROD: Such as a purist emphasis on things being ‘decentralised’ or ‘distributed’ in an infrastructural sense …
AP: Exactly. ‘In an infrastructural sense’ which then comes to stand in for whatever social or cultural relationships might be required to make such a thing operate. So you can say ‘we will then have a distributed system’ and it’s like the technical or topographic description stands in for all of the things that you would need to construct to build a social and cultural movement. This is partly the consequence of having people with lots of technical training who are influential in these movements. So this is where my critique of the mesh comes from. My critique is not so much that people would like to build networks that mesh together or that they couldn’t feasibly make this happen, but with the assumption that if you did that this would be modelling and instantiating a distributed form that would imply social and cultural relationships.
ROD: I think that’s a great analysis of what’s so problematic with much of the work around p2p networks. Not just around CWMs and meshes but more recent work around, say, the blockchain as a new distributed infrastructure… that presumption that we can technically or algorithmically engineer the commons.
AP: Or engineer people out of equations!
ROD: But how do you think we can find a medium where we’re still acknowledging the affordances of these systems? Obviously we’re not talking about a perfect translation between the infrastructural topology and the social practices that can emerge, but that isn’t to say that technical architectures fail to matter. Or do you disagree?
AP: Well I think that the people interested in creating social change who are interested in technological models need to work with the people who are interested in making social change who may know more about how social change operates. I believe that these two sets of approaches occupy the same space and they have many of the same goals, but they bring different ways of thinking about things. Silicon valley is not the only space where you get people who are compelled to believe that technology will bring social change; you also find that in activist circles, and I think we need to be better at building bigger coalitions and being more humble if we’re from a more tech-activist background. We need to work with people who have done a lot of community organising and can describe how to create social change, how to create trust, how to involve many people, how to break down hierarchies and this involves different kinds of skills and embracing a certain kind of humility.
P2P processes have existed throughout history. So the question is to what extent does their mediation make a difference? And if the mediation is going to be technological, how do you maintain the legitimacy of the processes themselves without letting the technology take too much of a role?