panos_photo_smallIn the latest post in our Alternative Internet(s) series, Panayotis Antoniadis, Senior Researcher at the Communication Systems Group at ETH Zürich, argues that we should be prepared for an explosion of personal and community wireless networks.

Wireless technology, cheap off-the-shelf hardware and free and open source software make it easier and easier for people with less-technical inclinations to build their own local networks. They can thus become hosts of local communications between those in physical proximity, without a need to be connected to the commercial Internet, or buy a domain name or online space in commercial platforms. For example, using a Raspberry Pi, a web captive portal, and a WiFi dongle, a “self-appointed public character” –as Jane Jacobs called those that sustain a sidewalk’s social life– can activate today a context-specific social application that invites passersby and residents to engage in various combinations of virtual and physical, interactions in public spaces or a city neighborhood.

The possibly ephemeral presence of this invisible virtual space can be announced through physical interventions: a visible container of the device itself, a QR code, or a poster. Most importantly, anyone in proximity can join by simply selecting the corresponding wireless network name and opening a web browser without the need for credentials, private location information, or other identification, except for being there. Being there means also that there are opportunities to design for physical interactions, the inclusion of non-users, and the attachment of meaning to places.

The coverage can further increase, and thus the relevant types of applications, through the formation of a “mesh” network of such devices, which can organically grow according to the voluntary contributions of individuals or communities up to the scale of a large city, like Barcelona or Athens, or even more. But even the single node scenario above can find numerous interesting applications and it has been increasingly popular among activists, hackers, and artists, who recently formed an offline networks community preparing for its first “assembly” at the 313C conference. However, there are still forces that hinder the widespread adoption of such networks for mainstream uses, including practical, social and political challenges.

Why build local networks?

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, people argue. Why invest 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?

Despite the challenges, there are many good reasons why it is important for this technology to become popular, and easy to install and customize even for non-savvy users, even when the Internet is easily accessible. These reasons go beyond the increasing threats posed on our privacy, freedom of speech and self-determination, which have brought many offline networks like Firechat, occupyhere.org, and Commotion, into the spotlight (for example, see stories from CNN, NYTimes, NiemanLab). They go also beyond the obvious benefits related to resilience and sustainability, as demonstrated by the important role that the RedHook WiFi initiativein Brooklyn had during the Sandy storm.

The most important reason why local wireless networks are important is because they have a few special characteristics that can facilitate the truly serendipitous and privacy-preserving interaction that is the contact between strangers in the city. They ensure the de facto physical proximity of their users, they allow for anonymous communications, they are tangible objects present themselves in the public space, and they can create feelings of intimacy and independence. In addition, being literally owned by the citizens , they provide unlimited options for the participatory design of the hybrid urban space that they create, and can offer inclusive access and representation of the collective identity, and thus empower citizens to claim their “right to the (hybrid) city” from big corporations like Facebook and Google.

Here I will not elaborate more on why offline networks are important for our citizen rights and how researchers, activists, and artists can join forces to transform them into a mediator for a human-centered and diversified social life in cities–nethood.org is an under construction not-for-profit organization that will be working on these questions over the next few years.

Could they become mainstream?

But what if they manage to win the competition with the big Internet players and become a mainstream technology? Imagine a world where practically anyone owning a cheap networking device could very easily customize it based on a huge variety of templates for software functionality and presentation– imagine this to be as easy as it is today to create a new blog using wordpress but hosted directly on the device instead of a remote server–and introduce it in a public space for facilitating local hybrid interactions over short or long time durations. This person (or organization) could be a street musician offering digital versions of her music and local information to tourists, a newcomer in a residential area who would like to meet his neighbors, a traveler who would like to exchange tips or socialize with those in the same bus or train, a researcher who would like to carry out a context-specific survey, a company or public organization that wishes to receive anonymous feedback on the services provided, a municipality that would like to build local knowledge for a participatory planning process. I am sure you can think of many more examples adapted to your individual circumstances.

Kevin Kelly answered his question “what technology wants?” by speculating that it wants to “play with the borderlines”, to “keep changing the game in order to keep playing”. Do It Yourself offline networks try to play with the borderlines of the Internet. They have the potential to become a real game changer, unleashing people’s creativity and giving birth to millions of small, self-organized hybrid networks that could eventually be interconnected in pairs or through backbone community wireless networks, like in Nicholas Negroponte’s “lily pads and frogs” metaphor from 13 years ago. Such a scenario could actually echo the early years of the Internet with an explosion of alternatives, but now at an urban (instead of a global) scale.

Just as in the past some people couldn’t imagine the possible uses of a personal computer at home, today there are many who do not see a role for such “personal networks”. But I believe that when the current usability barriers are (soon) overcome, they will become part of our everyday lives. Are we ready? Are we ready to tackle the governance of this distributed alternative (and complementary) infrastructure? Are we ready to address the possible illegitimate uses and the reactions by surveillance states and key Internet players, without sacrificing the potential benefits toward a more democratic, pluralistic and convivial society that it can offer?

This article gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics. The picture featured on the home page is taken from a draft proposal for a student project by Saleem Bhatti (St. Andrews University) who was inspired by the idea of DIY networking and personal networks during a recent Dagstuhl seminar.