The MAZI project has brought together academics, community activists and technology hackers to develop a DIY networking toolkit: a series of guidelines, tools and services with a goal of making it easier for activists to set up and run their own local DIY networking initiatives.
But what do we mean by DIY networking?
A simple answer might be that it’s any form of communication technology tool that enables access to a service over a network, set up and run by the people who will use it. Panayotis Antoniadis and colleagues define it as “a variety of technical solutions that enable citizens to build and operate their own communication networks”.
There’s a long tradition of citizens building and running their own telecommunications systems: at the beginning of the twentieth century with the early days of ham radio; and farmers self-provisioning telephone connections over using barbed wire cattle fences (a fun read: America calling: a social history of the telephone to 1940).
In MAZI, we are specifically focusing on networking to extend or offer an alternative to the internet. The purpose of a lot of early activity around DIY networking focussed around gaining access to the internet- overcoming ‘the first mile’ gap, where the challenge was to extend the reach of a system to places that weren’t considered profitable enough or politically expedient to cover. This ‘digital divide’ between those who had easy access to the internet and those who didn’t was overcome by using a range of technologies: often extending copper cables: through walls, over roofs, across streets. A few pioneers explored wireless links, which allow more flexible connections (crossing land that they didn’t have physical access to) and over distances which it wouldn’t be feasible to run a drum of cable. We’re lucky to be working with one of the early pioneers of the UK DIY wireless networking scene, James Stevens from SPC, who connected one of the earliest links in London in the mid 90s, and has been running networking initiatives ever since.
The emergence of a community of networking enthusiasts and activists, sharing ideas and technical solutions, coupled with the availability of more affordable wireless networking equipment led to a blossoming of a world-wide DIY networking movement. Antoniadis et al. indicate ‘variety’ as a significant element of DIY networking and this can be seen not just in the range of technical approaches but also in the diversity of social and geographical settings, philosophies, and motivations of different groups.
DIY networking initiatives and experiments have not only sought to extend the internet, but also offered the opportunity to create networks operating independently of the internet. From a technical perspective, this is a basic functionality: the internet, is after all a network of networks, so the majority of network infrastructures can operate at least partially outside of the internet. From a social or political perspective, however, this (focus) becomes very interesting, implying that enough value can be offered in an independent network so as to make access to the internet unnecessary for the participants of the network. There can be many reasons for building an ‘off-line network’: for example necessity (because there’s no other way to be connected); privacy (to keep information away from commercial or government networks); autonomy (to be able to decide how the network is designed and how it is used) and also for playful reasons (exploring possibilities, experimenting, and enjoying what might be tried out).
We also consider complimentary networks, networking systems that have some links to the larger internet. These networks extend the internet beyond the reach of commercial or government providers for some reason, but still link into the internet. They might extend or improve access to those marginalised by commercial access infrastructures, providing additional links to those communities that commercial providers would otherwise not reach. Alternatively they might be local networks that have a specific purpose or configuration that other providers wouldn’t support, but still link either permanently or sporadically to the wider internet to achieve their goals.
DIY networking is clearly not a single type of activity, but covers a landscape from remote communities arranging their own internet provisioning, to urban activists encouraging richer hyperlocal communications, to political activists seeking to give oppressed peoples the ability to communicate without fear of repression, and not to discount artists and hackers exploring the edge of what is possible.
Perhaps we could map this landscape to reflect on what we mean by ‘DIY networking’, and as Gunnar Karlsson suggests, explore each of the terms: the “Do”, the “It” and the “Yourself” to better understand the range of activity.
“Doing” might be the building, customising or configuring of network tools, software and hardware to support local activities. This might range from using off the shelf equipment, to bringing together tools and services to form a custom configuration suitable for a local situation, through to building systems from the bottom up, including soldering, coding from scratch, and custom building of local systems.
“It” might refer to the activities the groups or individuals engage in through the use of the DIY networking: from using a locally built system to engage with the internet as typical home users (e.g. browsing the internet, sending email) through to more reflective practices, such as using the networking tools to reimagine their local community.
“Yourself” refers to the who is doing it: from getting a commercial provider to carry out the work, through to collaborating with local community networkers, and out to individuals or groups taking complete ownership and undertaking the work themselves.
We recognise that DIY networking initiatives may operate anywhere along the spectrum, likely moving along it at different times, and that there will be other dimensions that can be used to characterise DIY network. We will be exploring this critically as we continue through the project.
However, if we talk about DIY networking, to quote Gunnar again, we should reflect also on another ‘Y’ – Why DIY Network?