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Hacking the City, Creating Community

ilesansfil.jpgMichael Lenczner wrote to me suggesting that I check out a recent post on his weblog about some of the larger issues raised by his work at Ile Sans Fil, a Montreal community wireless project. It's a provocative piece, as he compares the value of free community wifi to that of more traditional centers of community activity (such as neighborhood soccer fields). I'm not sure we're seeing that model in too many places, but I heartily agree with his underlying point: the use of these networked technologies by artists and non-profit organizations can fundamentally reshape the way that citizens experience their built environments.

We are hacking the built city.

This statement is based on the idea that as wireless devices and services proliferate and ubiquitous computing becomes a reality, the physical environment (especially the built city) is rapidly becoming enhanced space or mixed-reality. The supposedly seperate existences of off-line and on-line are intersecting and overlapping - most rapidly in cities. [...]

To be sure, we have constraints on how much we can hack the city - it's not as if we can easily directly confront the power of the the police or building developpers. But we can work to allow spaces to better retain memories, to promote both stronger and a larger number of looser associations between individual, to increase valuing of art and artists, or to help people get laid (more) on the basis of shared interests as well as looks.

This is a fascinating transformation to watch. When public wireless Internet spots first popped up, there was a distinct geeky edge to them, which soon broadened into the perception that they were really only for students and knowledge workers still on the clock on weekends. But while this latter concept remains the dominant one in mainstream advertising and news reports, the growing integration of wireless tools into the every day lives of creative communities means that these networks are no longer just the province of people who "have to" be online. Projects such as Dencity, Neighborhood Satellites, and other smart environment efforts are only possible when a wireless infrastructure is not just present, but expected.

This is already true, to an extent, with mobile phone networks, although in this case the carrier-driven limitations of the services militate against taking full advantage of their potential. Projects like a Placeopedia/Location-based Wikipedia mashup are really only possible with an open Internet connection.

When the mass of people come to expect the presence of open wireless networks, and are willing to participate in both the creation and the use of information that is only relevant in the context of physical location, the transformation will be compete. The overlay of information and connection the technology enables will no longer have to suffer geeky labels like "augmented reality." Instead, we'll just call it community.


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» world changing from mtl3p
Over the last few months I figured out that WorldChanging was an interesting place with lots of interesting optimistic techies hanging around there. I read a few interesting articles on wireless there - all written by Jamais . So I... [Read More]

Comments (8)

Eli Pousson:

For a small counterpoint check out:

Our Unreliable Wirless Future


While I'm not a believer that you can solve serious social schims on the soccer field, there's a deeper problem in asserting that free community wifi is like pulling together a soccer game in a troubled community. In a soccer game, people play with/against each other, confronting their own feelings about each other through mud and sweat and effort over time. A soccer game requires the players to be there at the same time, in person, all involved in the same activity, working together as a team.

Not so free community wifi, which offers the possibility of individual use, whenever and for whatever reasons each individual may declare.

Is there public value in free community wifi? Sure. Is ISF an activist group? Yes again, at least in intent. And I have to say: "hacking the built city" is a phrase worthy of Zizek.

But the 55 wifi sites with 9000 users will not create community unless lots of other things are brought to the mix.

robert - you make a great point - which is *exactly* why we don't do "offers the possibility of individual use, whenever and for whatever reasons each individual may declare."

Not written up in my article was our open-source software project wifidog. Its goal is to force an individual into the identity of a community member - at least for the duration of the splash screen. Whether it accomplishes that is another story - but we're working on it.


Michael: I like your goal and admire your confidence that you'll work your way to community. Keep on trying to prove me wrong. By the way, how long is the duration of the splash screen?

Well - maybe we won't figure it out ourselves, but groups like wirelessToronto and NYCwireless are using the wifidog system and hopefully they'll be better innovators around design, UI, and community apps than us.

The duration of the splash screen is as long as it takes you to enter in another url or hit your homebutton.

This (pretty ugly thing - it got worse inthe last week) thing is our current portal page for one hotspot. Note the showing flickr photos from a unique tag. Also it shows rss feeds (as well as can show text, pictures, audio, etc on a per-hotspot basis).

What we're trying to do is more similar to Neighbornode and PlaceSite than to other wireless groups - except we have way more hotspots and users and we have a centralized system which gives us some network possiblities. We've been influenced by Julian Bleeker's work/interventions with wirelessbedouin and ArtCache

this is an incredibly relevant paper
that just came out by anne galloway and matthew ward. it's on locative media projects

"As we dig a bit deeper into how particular locative media projects negotiate local and global spaces, we see an increasing "technologisation" and commodification of urban and public spaces. Graham points out to how "places [are] becoming increasingly constructed through the... surveillance, and sorting, of cities". And these "software-sorted cities" point to a related and politically-charged question posed succinctly by Borden : "How can differential space be sought in the land and epock of the commodified, the abstract, the homogenized, the reductive, and the powerful?". In other words, what relations of difference -- of production and consuption, of public and private -- are possible in the worlds shaped through pervasive computing and locative media?

. . .

At stake in all these relations are questions between artists and corporate researchers, designers and users, subjects and objects, pasts and futures, material and immaterial, commodities and values. If locative media are ultimately understood as collections of cultural artefacts, what roles do they take in shaping personal identities, collective histories and values, political and economic interests around the world. And finally, what roles should they take?"

That's the question we're trying to figure out - along with lots of other people / groups.

I understand the point. But it strikes me that if we buy into the language game, we are already buying the bad consequences. Fancy lingo separates rich from poor, educated from less educated, English speakers from people who speak other languages, and tends to create segregated, securitized, and sanitized cyberspace--the very thing we all don't want. Here's a simple thing we all can do to promote that ideal 'soccer game' in the electronic ether: take the field with simple words. Or, as Joan Rivers said, can we talk.

point taken. Although if we were talking over a beer I would tell you about not having my undergrad, that all of us (35 people) at ISF are volunteers (no paid positions), and that it's hard to get the powers that be (industry, gov't, academics, etc) to take us seriously because of that. So high falutin fancy talk is something we can use to get to the table. But something is lost in that comprise - I agree.


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