I can’t believe I am copyediting the last version of my PhD thesis! So many people have worked and played, participated, contributed, critiqued and otherwise walked along with me. Here’s the ‘official abstract’ – more coming soon once the blog interface is fixed.
Co-productions of Technology, Culture and Policy in North America�s Community Wireless Networking Movement
Alison Powell, July 3, 2008
This thesis investigates the visions and realities of community WiFi�s social and political impact from a communications studies perspective, examining how communication technology and social forms are co-produced and providing a communication studies perspective on the transformation of social visions of technology into technological, social, and policy realities. By following the development of local WiFi projects and the emergence of broader policy-oriented mobilizations, it assesses the real outcomes of socially and politically progressive visions about information and communication technologies (ICTs). The visions of advocates and developers suggest that community WiFi projects can inspire greater local democratic engagement, while the realities suggest a more subtle bridging of influence from community WiFi actors into policy development spheres. The thesis describes local WiFi networks in Montreal and Fredericton, NB, and the North American Community Wireless Networking (CWN) movement as it has unfolded between 2004 and 2007, arguing that its democratic visions of technology and their institutional realities have been integral to the politicization of computing technology over the last four decades. Throughout the thesis, WiFi radio technology, a means of networking computers and connecting them to the internet by using unlicensed radio spectrum, acts as an example of how a technology’s material form is co-produced along with its symbolic social and political significance.
I am not writing here because: I am almost done a full thesis draft.
There is a terror in almost being done with a big piece of writing: because when we bring it into the world, it stands or falls on its own value. In my mind, my writing is perfect, complete, lucid. In fact, it is lumpen, awkward, sometimes unrefined.
The Open-source Boyfriend says, “you have to communicate it, and to communicate it you have to write it down. You can’t have someone halfway across the world read what you write and comment on it until it’s written.”
I know he’s right (write?). Release early, release often, they say. But I’m scared that the awful truth is that upon release, I have nothing to say!
The idea is in my head, in my hands, arms, legs, and feet. Getting it from there to the screen, to the page, to the table with the pen and the cup of tea, is the hardest thing I could have ever imagined. There is nothing, it seems, more difficult than a line (that was Picasso).
The distractions are legion: grant applications, art projects, trapeze lessons, newspapers, music, food, friends.
But the idea is still there, turning slowly, gestating. A quote from a fellow researcher I read recently sums it up best: “it is like being married to something. You go to bed with it, you wake up with it”.
I am not married to anything but this, not now. But this idea could take up all the space there is. It could, if I don’t get it into words.
I have been taking trapeze lessons for almost a year now. Aside from it being a satisfyingly bizarre spare-time activity, it is a good way to build strength, flexibility, and coordination without having to endure the gym. But the best part is that slowly, I am learning to do things that I used to think were impossible. My coach is sanguine about this. She says, “humans were not meant to do this. We resist at every stage. But you can learn to do impossible things.”
Today, I suspended myself completely upside down, ten feet up in the air, above the trapeze bar. It felt easy.
I would like to apply my coach’s teaching method — the rigourous, methodical repetition of incrementally more difficult tasks — to my professional life. I’m beginning to analyse the data I’m using for the thesis, while planning and conducting more new more data collection. Why? Partly to make up for data lost due to technical mishaps and plain stupidity, but also because I am learning a lot about methodology by listening, reading, and writing down what I have already done. In new research situations I can then modify my approach, building on the last movement.
I rushed through the end of my workout today. Nothing looked good, and I almost lost my balance. Coach shook her head: “We have to do things slowly when we are in a hurry.”
I feel in a hurry to finish this thesis, to embark on the next adventure. But it’s clear that I have to learn, up in the ropes and down here, to do things more slowly.
I passed my thesis proposal defence in January, and three months later I can finally say — THIS is what I am writing about:
Imagining and Building WiFi: Social, Cultural, and Policy Consequences of Community Communication Infrastructure
My thesis examines how the local, non-commercial development of wireless internet connectivity projects are sociotechnical utopias, reconfiguring the dreams of previous generations of communication technologies through their impact on social organization and their place in the contemporary social imaginary. Grounded in qualitative, empirical study of the planning, design, and implementation of three such networks, the thesis examines how both discourse and practice shape these local technology projects, revealing in them the ongoing points of tension between the global and the local, and between the openness of “free information” and the enclosure necessary for society (and for communication) to function. While previous work in communication studies has examined how community media and community technology projects can confound structures of ownership and diffusion based on broadcasting and create ideal sites for local communication, this project goes further. By using ethnography to read the traces left by actors — humans, and material objects – it analyses the consequences of the reappearance of the community as the site of the production of communication technologies. These consequences include new social and cultural relationships, including questions of governance and policy. Throughout, Wi-Fi radio technology, a means of networking computers and connecting them to the internet by using unlicensed radio spectrum, acts as an example of how a technology’s material capacity becomes interwoven with social action and mutually configured by it.