There’s a lot of interest around DIY networking currently, but why do it? ‘YDIY?’ as Gunnar Karlson put it at the 2014 Dagstuhl on DIY networking. As an old friend and time-served community networker commented: it’s hard to set up, and hard to maintain. Why not go with your national or corporate telecom provider to put in a WiFi router to your house and a connection to their network?
Here are four reasons that you might choose to build your own network, rather than phone up a commercial supplier:
First and foremost, you might want to connect together devices, or talk to somebody else, or get onto the internet in a situation where a commercial or government provider just isn’t around to give you a connection: you have no option but to Do It Yourself. There’s a long heritage around people connecting themselves to the world: a hundred years ago in the USA, farmers were getting a telephone connection that last mile from the nearby town by running shared telephone lines over their barbed wire fences. The first DIY wireless computer networks were set up because commercial alternatives were too expensive. The ‘digital divide’ saw those who had access to the internet, and those that hadn’t as yet another emerging divide, and followed other prior technology trends, with rural, peripheral and transient communities the last to get connected. While internet connectivity is improving in many developing countries, there are still rural areas and particular groups that can’t get connected by commercial providers running a line. In the MAZI project, for example, we’re working with the Minesweeper Collective, an artists’ community that lives in boats moored up in Deptford Creek. They get their internet connection from SPC, who have a community network that provides internet connectivity in South East London.
Second, you might wish to keep your data private, and not connect via the internet. Edward Snowden has revealed how much data can be gathered by national bodies, generating debate around the topic, and this has been thrown into sharp relief in the UK with the Investigatory Powers Bill that has recently been passed into law and gives authorities wide ranging powers to gather data on conversations. For many people, the chief concern is about what data is being collected by commercial companies, such as car insurance companies gathering data from Facebook to decide what premium to charge you. In some circumstances though, the consequences can be more serious: there are countries where sharing conversations about political dissent, such as taking part in demonstrations can result in imprisonment.
Projects such as Qaul.net are exploring phone-to-phone networks that allow people to organise and communicate without sending conversations via a government monitored network.
Beyond privacy, there can be a range of other reasons for not choosing to use a commercial provider when one is available. Having control over your own digital network allows you to choose how it’s used, what services are provided, and how it’s set up and run. The idea of maintaining autonomy is attractive in itself: for example you may prefer to be part of a cooperative venture run within your local community because you feel this empowers the neighbourhood and keeps financial costs within the local area. Commercial providers’ services are restricted to what makes commercial sense for them, for example by providing higher download speeds than upload speeds. Local networks such as OWN provide high speed upload as well as download speeds: ideal if you’re a music venue that wants to broadcast live gigs. Gamers might want a network configured to preference particular types of connectivity to benefit their games, as they’d find at a LAN Party. With digital services moving increasingly towards the commercial “internet cloud”, personal ownership of resources is becoming more and more blurred and holding digital resources in your own network might enable you to control how they are used and shared.
Finally, we shouldn’t forget sheer playfulness, curiosity, and enjoyment as a motivation for taking up DIY networking. Getting a better understanding of how the technology around us works, or learning new skills as a result of improving our own tools and services has a noble and long tradition, there have been hackers and makers and tinkerers throughout history: the orgins of the internet are tied up with MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club.
Exploring technology can encourage people to reflect about their own views of the world, and art installations can encourage us to think more closely about how we interact with networks: for example UdK’s Polyloge installation. Through an open WIFI network, users in reach of the wireless signal broadcast by the installation can send text messages with their smartphones, tablets or computers. These messages get printed immediately on a paper roll that runs in-between two translucent, black boxes and are transformed into a material stream of consciousness. Several metres after they are printed, they are shredded: a conversation over digital networks that only last for a few minutes in the room in which they were started.
With these different motivations in mind, the MAZI project will be exploring how local communities might engage with their own digital networks to support local challenges, and we’ll be thinking about how best to understand to what extent these are successful or otherwise.