are more energy-efficient than wireless but they have increased deployment costs and limited flexibility. So, although a truly organic and sustainable Internet built from scratch should heavily depend on a wired infrastructure, it is through wireless technology and grassroots movements that today local communities can actually claim their rights to the Internet and develop organic alternatives to privatized infrastructures and commercial services. Going back to our analogy, organic urban gardens might not be able to cover the nutrition needs of a city in a sustainable way, but they do provide a means for building awareness and stimulate citizen motivation and engagement. Similarly, wireless DIY networks might not provide the optimal solution in terms of resource and energy usage for certain communication needs, but they are very effective tools for the emancipation and appropriation of ICT technology by citizens toward the “right to the hybrid city” (Antoniadis & Apostol, 2014).
Even in cases when local authorities do participate in the deployment and management of network infrastructures for the common good, wireless solutions offer a means of experimentation and divergence from the status quo, which helps to sustain diversity and adaptability to change. From a practical perspective, they also offer a non-intrusive and privacy preserving way to identify the location of a user the moment he/she connects to the network, for example, without the need for constantly recording his/her GPS location, allowing for more “intimate”, anonymous yet de facto local, communications between those in physical proximity. But let’s first explain how DIY, or community, networks work.
A wireless router, which is a special-purpose computer, can do more than just connect a device to the Internet. It could also host a server a virtual announcement board for a block of apartments, an online guestbook for an urban garden, a file-sharing platform for a workshop, and many more “self-hosted” web applications like Wordpress, NextCloud, and Etherpad, which anyone can host on a private web server. These services are accessible through the router’s wireless antenna using a network name, a Service Set Identifier (SSID), exactly as one would use when connecting to a free or home WiFi network. They can also appear automatically on a splash page or captive portal when you open your browser (as is often the case in airports, cafes, and hotels). If the router is equipped with a second antenna, it can easily connect to a similar router residing in the coverage area, the size of which depends on the type of antenna and other environmental factors. The first antenna can then be used to allow people with their personal devices to connect; and the second to exchange information with the neighboring router. Each router then becomes a “node” in a small network. Anyone who connects to one of them can access the people and services offered by the others. As more nodes get connected, larger areas are covered and a community can be formed—initially by the owners of the nodes, and eventually by everyone in the area.
Of course, one cannot easily build a whole network like this by oneself, but it is not difficult to build a single network node using cheap hardware (such as a Raspberry Pi) and free self-hosted software to deploy the set of local services and applications that fit a specific context (Antoniadis, 2016a). Community wireless networks have been under development since the late 1990s by tech enthusiasts and activists advocating for a more open, neutral and democratic internet (Antoniadis, 2016b; Medosch, 2014). They include a mix of local services, such as file sharing and live streaming (AWMN.net and Ninux.org) and the provision of Internet connectivity. Freifunk.net, WlanSlovenja, Sarantaporo.gr, and many more focus on this aspect in particular.
There are important differences between various models of governance and the concept of the community itself (Antoniadis, 2016a; Navarro et al., 2016). Freifunk follows the “free internet for all” approach and depends mostly on voluntary contributions from their members to offer internet connectivity. On the other hand, Guifi.net places significant focus on the concept of the “commons”, implying concrete boundaries and resource management rules. It has developed a unique model (Baig et al., 2015) in which the network infrastructure including fiber cables is treated as separate from the services it is involved with providing.
Community networks like Freifunk.net and Guifi.net take advantage of the unlicensed WiFi spectrum to create wireless backbone links without the need to have access to expensive infrastructure. An antenna on a roof can offer Internet access if it connects to someplace within 50 km of its line of sight that has connectivity. Of course, solutions for a community or municipality may also include the deployment of locally owned wired infrastructures. Although there are numerous stories of successful community networks around the world, these infrastructures face significant hurdles through legislations that favor big commercial ISPs (Dulong de Rosnay, Giovanella, Messaud, & Tréguer, 2016). Similar to the legal fights against farmers that keep their own seeds, the deployment of local broadband solutions is often being considered an illegal or prohibitively expensive option for local authorities or non-profit organizations’ activity.
Tangible Reasons Why
Despite the critical role of community networks for providing affordable Internet access to underprivileged populations, it is important to realize that DIY
networking is a good idea even if the Internet is ubiquitous and free for everyone—a position that may appear extreme (see Antoniadis, 2016a). For example, DIY
networking enables the creation of network infrastructures offering alternative options in case of natural disasters, as proved to be the case during Hurricane Sandy when people relied on the RedHook WiFi initiative in Brooklyn (Baldwin, 2011). There are also many political reasons why one should consider the use of local networks for supporting local online interactions related to privacy, surveillance, and self-determination (Antoniadis, 2016a). Despite their significance, these reasons alone cannot easily motivate people to engage in the creation of DIY
networks in their neighborhoods. But even if someone would trust Facebook and Google to store and analyze their private information for their own commercial purposes, there is still an important social threat created by the domination of these global platforms—namely, social alienation and the lack of location-based collective awareness.
Focusing on this social dimension, DIY
networking has some characteristics that could help designers to resolve the tension between anonymity that allows for freedom of expression and identity that helps to build trust and community, in more desirable ways than the corresponding Internet-based solutions. In other words, they can use DIY
networking solutions 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 costs to time and privacy. The most relevant metaphor here is the sidewalk which Jane Jacobs praised as a place for essential informal interactions between strangers that can achieve a very delicate balance between privacy and public exposure (1961). If carefully designed, hybrid ICT applications that enable spontaneous information sharing between strangers can offer new ways to support the capacity of the sidewalk in contemporary cities to 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.
Still, one could always ask, “Why not host all these nice applications on a server accessible through the Internet or local wired solutions?” The answer typically depends on the specific environment but there are four important characteristics of wireless technology that make it an interesting candidate for building an organic Internet from the bottom up:
All potential users of a local wireless network are in de facto physical proximity. The option of anonymity, in addition to be technically feasible, is also 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).
network needs to be set up and deployed by someone that has access to the built environment, such as a resident with a well-located balcony, an owner of a central store, or a local institution with the authority to install street side infrastructure. This can ensure that the local network is designed and customized by members of the community ideally in an inclusive and convivial manner.
Wireless networks are much easier to deploy than wired, and this can be done by practically anyone. They are also inherently mobile allowing for creative and flexible uses, but also for provocations challenging the status quo that are less intrusive than graffiti for example but much richer as a means of expression.
Being tangible infrastructure themselves, wireless networks can be naturally embedded in other artifacts 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 temporary 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 (Unteidig et al., 2015) and Polylogue. See http://www.design-research-lab.org/projects/polyloge-1/.
Finally, a local ICT infrastructure which facilitates communication exclusively between those that can easily meet face to face could be designed exactly for this purpose. Thus, energy efficiency would not be only the result of the lower energy required when communication takes place through local wireless networks as described above, but it would also be the product of people’s ability to spend more time meeting their social and psychological needs away from their computers and mobile devices.
Despite the many good reasons why local DIY
networks make sense, there is still little understanding of their potential value and little willingness to invest in their infrastructure and specialized services. The good news is that such local networks do not need to be introduced as a replacement for the Internet, but as alternative local solutions which allow for experimentation and net-diversity and which can be complementary to global services. Net-diversity could be indeed the ultimate argument which may be effective amidst current economic, social, and political crises, because people realize they can no longer assume things will always remain the same and they need alternatives for the exceptional times ahead.
Kevin Kelly (2010) 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”. DIY
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 (2002)’s “lily pads and frogs” metaphor from 15 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.
Synergies and Complementarities
If one wants to be pragmatic, one needs to realize that during the transition to the organic Internet, we will not be alone in the world. Most importantly, we will not be able to afford losing global services offered by the Internet today but which cannot be provided at the local level. A global infrastructure is therefore required and corporations will always exist to compete with local solutions in providing local services. So, in addition to a global vision, we also need a plan for the transition, for scaling up, and for the formation of potential synergies with similar initiatives around other common resources such as food, housing, education, health, and the economy.
Indeed, similar forms of local action or better tools for conviviality have been gaining a lot of attention. These include, for example, complementary currencies, cooperative
housing models, and grassroots education and health. Those and other examples of commoning
activities will need sophisticated ICT tools to help make efficient use of human resources and improve accounting, trust building, and collaboration. The vision of local DIY
networks might be promoted by such complementary local commoning
activities as a compatible way to build the ICT solutions required for their successful operation. In the other direction, treating network infrastructure as a commons can also provide inspiration for the management of other common resources and act as a triangulator for stimulating social contact and community building.