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.