Alison Powell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media & Communications in the London School of Economics. Her research examines the history and future of openness within new media. Alison’s research explores open-source cultures including community wireless networks, free software advocates and people interested in open sourcing knowledge including hardware design. Alison was involved in Île Sans Fil, a Montreal organisation founded in 2003 and committed to spreading Wi-Fi across the city.
I interviewed Alison last month during IAMCR in Montreal, Canada. We spoke about the Community Wireless Network (CWN) Île Sans Fil in Montreal, the changing role of wireless infrastructure in reclaiming the city and why creating a P2P society needs much more than the right technical infrastructure.
ROD: You’ve done a lot of research across p2p, but with a particular focus on community wireless networks and more recently smart cities and open data. What drew you to research community wireless networks initially?
AP: I’ve always been really interested in urban communication spaces and in the ways that people appropriate different technologies within urban spaces to create their own identities and to create their own versions of the city. So I was really drawn to community wireless networks because I thought it was a way of remaking the city and adding a different element to the idea of urban life that was both collective and technological. The people in Montreal had this idea of ‘hacking the city’ as part of the way that they thought of the work they were doing. It was really interesting to work with them because they were interested in reimagining the city through community and collective projects and they were doing that reimagining through a technology project. That meant there were several levels. There was the level of the technology itself and the ways that people were using internet technologies and thinking about access to information technology or even thinking about how we distribute the computing network. Another level was thinking about how we change the way that we all live together in cities. Do we do this by creating a community organisation, partnering with other community organisations or having something quite rhizomatic that connects different community organisations?
ROD: When did you start the research?
AP: I started that in 2004. It wasn’t of course one of the first community networks, I think the first ones were in London. The people that did those projects – like James Stevens and Julian Priest – they were also thinking about transforming the city and they had a more radical perspective on the topological side of things, because from the beginning they were interested in building meshes. And they were interested in building meshes because they were interested in building a horizontal city. If you read Julian’s report on the Consume project in London, he talked about how they were going to make horizontal nodal cities that would overlap and intersect and be a model for a non-hierarchical way of communicating and being in the city. And of course it didn’t work, because mostly these things are visions; they’re creative projects.
ROD: How did Île Sans Fil differ?
AP: It wasn’t a mesh network.
ROD: What kind of a topology did it have?
AP: They developed a gateway protocol that transforms an existing network connection into a wireless hotspot. The gateway protocol is open source.
Their main innovation was that all of the authorisation for the individual wireless hotspots would be visible on the server. So they did interesting projects that linked the hotspots together. There was some information that was transferrable across hotspots even though each node was its own spot. The nodes were never linked together (meshed) but there was this idea that the network itself was one entity so they linked all of the different locations where you could get wireless access, mostly through projects where there were stories or information distributed over hotspots.
For example, in one storytelling project each hotspot had a different part of the story told by a different character and in order to get a full story you would have to visit all the hotspots. They also provided election information that was specific to the location of each hotspot access point.
Their idea of using the technology to link people together and to create a more horizontal city did not have to do with the topology of the network; it had to do with the applications and the creative projects that ran over the top of the network. The network itself was quite simple, just hotspots broadcasting Wi-Fi in each individual spot. The economic model was that they would partner with places that were already paying for Internet bandwidth and give people a completely ‘free’ (as in free-of-charge) way of managing access to that Internet bandwidth. So in the early 2000s when it was really hard to get Internet outside of your house, cafes signed up to provide individual hotspots, then some community centres and eventually business districts partnered with Île Sans Fil to pay for the equipment to install hotspots to cover entire streets. In turn that became a branding project for different parts of Montreal and eventually the city of Montreal created a partnership with Île Sans Fil to use their equipment and software to do wireless Internet access in lots of public locations. It was a way of rethinking the city through one technological possibility. But it was actually quite flexible. The activists were very flexible in how that happened; they wanted more people to become involved in learning how to build wireless technology in learning how to use it and they felt they were creating a very useful service.
ROD: How has the community wireless network model changed since that time? How sustainable is it? For example, one concern about community wireless networks more recently is that they seem to be tied in with mobile offloading by cellular networks. If in the past we framed community Wi-Fi in opposition to commercial networks and as a possibility to build over the top services using VoIP, today it seems as though Wi-Fi is just a positive externality for cellular carriers to offload their data into free and public communication space. I’m thinking of something like FON for example, which is presented as a ‘mobile commons’ but also has economic partnerships with large network operators that allow these to offload their mobile data onto Wi-Fi spectrum. We don’t really know who we’re sharing with.
AP: I did a project in 2006 while living in Paris, which was about different political economic models for wireless access in cities at the time. That was the point when I realised this wasn’t going to be a long-term sustainable mode for people to gain access. What was more interesting was that this was a creative appropriation and playfulness for different ways of thinking about the city and about creative practice.
From the beginning, FON was interested in employing Wi-Fi access within innovative economic partnerships. They partnered with Free, the French telecom – so it was always an offloading model. If you have bandwidth you can send it out unknowingly as a potential resource for passers-by. The initial models didn’t work because places where people had sectioned off their wireless bandwidth for public use weren’t necessarily in places where people used wireless. And so that’s why it became bundled into lots of telecom offers. That was the point at which I thought ‘it’s not really about Wi-Fi, it’s more about what different technologies might let you do’. Wi-Fi lets you offload and share bandwidth but if you don’t know who you’re sharing your bandwidth with or why and how that might create a relationship between you and them, then its kind of incidental that you’re sharing your bandwidth; it becomes simply an arrangement of infrastructure. From my perspective it’s a lot more interesting when people start thinking about and representing the social relationships that underpin that. I’ve always been a little bit disappointed by the models that seem to be about unknowingly offloading/sharing. This might be good if we’re thinking about commons-based infrastructure, but to me they don’t help us to think through the cultural changes we need to make in order to amplify the commons-based community relationships that we already have.
ROD: How significant are terms like commons or commoning to your practice?
AP: Radio spectrum is of course a public commons so you should think about how to manage that from a commons perspective as opposed to a proprietary auction and command and control model. But I don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about the commons from an economic perspective because I’m not an economist; I’m a person who thinks about how people use technologies to tell stories about themselves. So when people start telling stories about commons themselves, then I start listening. I also think about communication commons because I’m a communications scholar and I’m interested in people’s right to communicate and their ability to develop and have their own voice in the world. That’s a different kind of commons, a ‘speech commons’ – the space of possible speech and exchange.
ROD: The practices you’ve described with Île Sans Fil seem to relate more closely to that model of the commons, more so than the Elinor Ostrum model of economic governance of resources outside of the state or the market.
AP: Exactly. So this idea isn’t as well developed in the literature. And where the p2p literature talks about the commons there isn’t as much of a discussion of this.
ROD: Sure. There’s definitely more emphasis on commons as an economic resource. But you have the work of people like Peter Linebaugh for example, which is more focused on commoning as social production and social practices. That possibly relates to your idea of the speech commons?
AP: I’m more interested in social production than shared infrastructure and I’m more interested in cultural and symbolic production than social production and I’m really interested in people not as individuals but as groups of people. I’m interested in the commons as a speech commons that can be claimed and used expressively by all and not just by individuals.
ROD: To come back to a point you made earlier, you’ve expressed some criticism of the mesh network approach commonly used in CWNs. Does this relate to your criticism of different approaches to the commons?
AP: I’m critical of mesh networking projects because I have a concern about over-determining technological possibilities for social and cultural change. And we see this in a lot of technology-led movements. What we tend to see is that people interpret the possibilities of a technology’s design or, as you said, ‘topology’ to be a model for social or cultural forms.
ROD: Such as a purist emphasis on things being ‘decentralised’ or ‘distributed’ in an infrastructural sense …
AP: Exactly. ‘In an infrastructural sense’ which then comes to stand in for whatever social or cultural relationships might be required to make such a thing operate. So you can say ‘we will then have a distributed system’ and it’s like the technical or topographic description stands in for all of the things that you would need to construct to build a social and cultural movement. This is partly the consequence of having people with lots of technical training who are influential in these movements. So this is where my critique of the mesh comes from. My critique is not so much that people would like to build networks that mesh together or that they couldn’t feasibly make this happen, but with the assumption that if you did that this would be modelling and instantiating a distributed form that would imply social and cultural relationships.
ROD: I think that’s a great analysis of what’s so problematic with much of the work around p2p networks. Not just around CWMs and meshes but more recent work around, say, the blockchain as a new distributed infrastructure… that presumption that we can technically or algorithmically engineer the commons.
AP: Or engineer people out of equations!
ROD: But how do you think we can find a medium where we’re still acknowledging the affordances of these systems? Obviously we’re not talking about a perfect translation between the infrastructural topology and the social practices that can emerge, but that isn’t to say that technical architectures fail to matter. Or do you disagree?
AP: Well I think that the people interested in creating social change who are interested in technological models need to work with the people who are interested in making social change who may know more about how social change operates. I believe that these two sets of approaches occupy the same space and they have many of the same goals, but they bring different ways of thinking about things. Silicon valley is not the only space where you get people who are compelled to believe that technology will bring social change; you also find that in activist circles, and I think we need to be better at building bigger coalitions and being more humble if we’re from a more tech-activist background. We need to work with people who have done a lot of community organising and can describe how to create social change, how to create trust, how to involve many people, how to break down hierarchies and this involves different kinds of skills and embracing a certain kind of humility.
P2P processes have existed throughout history. So the question is to what extent does their mediation make a difference? And if the mediation is going to be technological, how do you maintain the legitimacy of the processes themselves without letting the technology take too much of a role?
The Peer-to-Peer City
In the following segment of the interview, we spoke about Alison’s work on the peer-to-peer city, an ‘alternative’ participatory governance model for cities that includes practices such as community networks, citizen science and citizen data collection operating alongside more hierarchical imaginaries of the ‘smart city’ or the data city. You can listen to a more detailed description of this concept in Alison’s Talk in Maynooth University Alison Powell – Coding alternative modes of governance: ‘Smart cities’ to ‘data cities’ from The Programmable City on Vimeo.
ROD: What drew you to the idea of the p2p city?
AP: I think many cities exist simultaneously. Describing the p2p city is describing one version of the city that exists alongside many others. At the moment I find investigating the p2p city is partly a form of therapy and partly a form of research. It’s partly a form of therapy because I live in Central London, and if you live in Central London at this moment in history there’s such a stratification of the city in economic, political and social terms that it’s almost dizzying. The form of therapy I engage in is to try to find ways that people are not only creating interesting community projects – because this can also be quite retrogressive as in ‘we’re going to construct our own insular community against the outside world and that’s the scale we’re going to live at’ – but also seeking forms of exchange and interchange that, like Île Sans Fil, are imagining the city in a different way and linking things up in a different way, and making pathways between students and community organisations and mobile workers. All of those constellations and ways of thinking about the city were really interesting. I’m on the hunt for more evidence of those p2p cities, where there is another kind of relationship being made between different entities in the city at the same time as we are witnessing this incredible consolidation and hierarchisation of urban resources.
You mentioned something like this at the end of the panel [Data and Democracy] on Monday when you were speaking about the 596 acres project in New York. This hope that anyone working in p2p probably has that there are still enclaves of resistance that we can point to
AP: We had another discussion of resistance this morning, which was about how resistance was changing. And I was trying to provoke people in my group into discussing how resistance is changing by saying that ‘maybe the current situation indicates that we cant have resistance anymore because we don’t have hegemony anymore. We’re not being oppressed from only one place and power is distributed.’ We had this really interesting discussion about how there are always going to be small pockets where other ways were being developed and where things are being done differently. These appear and they disappear and they create a subterranean network of different ways of being and thinking about things and building coalitions and connections that can be mobilised in moments of political possibility.
Do you see that in London or is it very fragmented?
AP: No I actually do see that but I also see a huge amount of frustration. There’s lots of people doing research and activism and artistic projects that critique the smart city, but one of the difficulties with London is that the people most interested in creating an alternative way of being in the city are having to leave the city because it’s so expensive. So I don’t know for that particular city… I’m continuing to try and notice what else is going on and to keep track of different kinds of interventions. There’s been very interesting housing action that’s forming a p2p city because there’s lots of squats and migrant justice work, so housing seems to be something that’s drawing people together and lots of people are organising around housing in different parts of the city in different ways and they’re starting to speak to each other.
I think you’re right that some of the more interesting work around the p2p city is around housing and physical space more so than any kind of technological activism. I’m thinking the amazing work that the PAH has done in Spain, for example, that’s been quite inspirational in Dublin, in terms of people developing strategies to collectively organise against mortgage evictions, rising house prices, rising rents and so on. And p2p technologies are a part of that work but not the primary agenda.
AP: I also think that it’s not technology activism. I think that technology activism is now so heavily colonised by capital and what the technology industry has become that what we will find in p2p cities is probably not necessarily technology activism in the way that community wireless was applying technology as a way of illustrating a different way of having a city. What we might see now is an issue such as housing or economic justice that is itself an organising framework and we’ll see technology used as a way to create links and develop an operational structure for that to happen.
Community radio has been around for 100 years. So that’s inspirational, not just to look at the emergent technology but how already existing technologies can be re-appropriated and ‘commoned’. For example, there’s still a good knowledge base for how to use radio. Pirate radio and community radio stations are another manifestation of the p2p city but they’re completely under the radar. And pirate radio communities have really interesting technologies because they have to have redundancy because the police can shut down their system at any time. So they have quite distributed technological arrangements but they also have really radical social arrangements because they have to be willing to get arrested and have somebody else run the station or have the station go down and come back up someplace else so these are also interesting things to think about and learn from. We can be as innovative as we want with the technology, but we also want to be very innovative with its use and employment and be very open to the different ways that stuff is used.