Category Archives: academic musings

Slow Food meets Community Broadband

Michael Pollan’s open letter to the next American president suggests that the North American industrial food production system should return to regionalism, year-round planting, and small farms.

Pollan has created a framework for local farming and food distribution that advocates for “small is beautiful” local agriculture (including a proposed White House Victory Garden) that avoids simply assuming that local food or small scale distribution is inherently better. There is no use, he argues, for calling for local distribution of more diverse crops if grain elevators will only accept corn and soy. A return to localism should happen because it is economically and socially viable, and would help the US disconnect food production from a dependence on foreign oil.

Many people I know from CWN and media reform advocacy would make a similar argument about the necessity for a return to localism in communications ownership. There are some parallels between the two areas: local media can nourish geographically close areas by presenting local stories, distributing local information, and creating opportunities for people living close to each other to learn about one another. Local evening newscasts on a broadcast television channel provided skilled employment as well as local information: but as media ownership consolidated, many local newscasts have been eliminated. Local radio funding has been cut too, as North American stations invest in satellite radio

So should we have a local internet? In the 1990s the answer to this question would have been yes, and the strategy the creation of community networks, which were the first ways for people without university affiliations to get online. These FreeNets, including the National Capital FreeNet in Ottawa, loaded up the front ends of their systems with local information, but what they did best was get people to go online . . .where . . . they met a lot of people who didn’t live in their local areas.

Then researchers started talking about the internet as a global utopia – Manuel Castells famously claimed that we were leaving behind a “space of places” and moving into a “space of flows.” Research in “virtual communities” blossomed. It seemed that a local internet was mostly a portal to a global world, and that communities and social networks would become dis-integrated from the local. The emotional argument might go this way: as we eat delicious berries out of season, trucked across the country, we watch YouTube videos instead of the local news.

But the internet is a local infrastructure: the local loop controls the speed of access to broadband. Someone must invest in this, and here is where community networking (reinvented as community wireless networking) comes in: WiFi is cheap, and local people can thus own the last mile, whether through their governments or through other non-profit or community organizations. The question is, should they? Unlike food, digital communications don’t absorb energy as they travel between places, and people maintain relationships with people from all over the world, as well as getting access to media from all over the world.

But people still live in places, and their lives are influenced by local policies, cultures, and contexts – not to mention media habits. My thesis case studies suggest that people most often use local WiFi networks to get their e-mail and to check the weather or the local news. It is impossible to return to a media world in which each small town has no idea of the big world issues. Finance, culture, and information flow too smoothly for this, and the disadvantages of being disconnected from this flow are still too great. Still, I believe that it is very likely that the next ten years will see us travel less, get our food from closer to where we live, and spend more time in local areas. If anything, this supports local investment in both communication infrastructure and in local media.

Local ownership and control of communications infrastructure can ensure that towns, cities, or neighbourhoods are not left out of the continuing global exchange of information. However, using community networks just to get people online is not the whole story – it is like investing in grain elevators for only one type of crop. If a more local world is coming (and it is, based on previous economic downturns), governments and organizations also need to invest in community media that will inspire local talent, provide employment, and help culture, creativity and innovation to strengthen.

Infrastructures of openness and enclosure

I’ve been reading Bowker and Star’s excellent book Sorting Things Out today. They write a history of various types of classificiation systems to make an argument that informational infrastructure has a social, political, and economic history. They call this approach infrastructural inversion.

While running in the park in the curiously golden English sunshine, I began to think about how infrastructures (especially the way Bowker and Star describe them) and protocols (especially the way Alexander Galloway describes them in Protocol) work together to define spaces of openness and enclosure. The infrastructures of the park, especially the fences and paths, physically define spaces for specific purposes (dogs here, but not there; children under 5 on these jungle gyms, not those ones; sand in the sandbox but not in the wading pool). But so too do the protocols that have shaped these infrastructures and make them meaningful. They are invisible, and perhaps more subtle, and as a foreigner I am unaware of some of them (pass on the left, not on the right, unless you want to be smushed by cars or step on a small child). Others are more obvious: (don’t talk to strangers) or insidious (language and accent place the park visitors clearly on a defined social ladder).

But still, a curious social scientist out jogging can draw some conclusions about how protocol and infrastructure can define some spaces as public or open (like the park) while still maintaining strict forms of control or enclosure over them. The argument becomes more difficult when we consider the mediated public spaces we build through mediated communication.

On the lunch table below are the physical traces of any number of infrastructures and protocols that regulate communications (among other human endeavors). A thorough enumeration of them (which I will spare you) would have to include the infrastructures of book distribution, electricity, cellular telephone communication, computer operating systems both open-source and proprietary, and innumerable protocols ranging from the arcane (integration of sensors into ad-hoc networks) to the banal (creation of legible cursive writing using a pen).

lunch table 2.jpg

If as Bowker and Star point out, infrastructures have their histories and futures built into them, and if cultures are necessarily built upon protocol, how can we manage this bewildering jumble of infrastructures and protocols to create some public space for communication? Is it possible to use the terms of openness and enclosure when both of them are necessary?

Spaces of Engagement

I am at McGill again today, to hear Patricia Aufderheide speak about the development of the internet, network neutrality, and the role of copyright in creating public media. The rest of the week I have been home, sitting in my office from day, to dusk, to night, writing my thesis proposal. Coming here is often a shock: the university has a quiet, removed aura (and an ivory tower – on a hill) that reminds me of my undergrad days. It’s a privileged space, and one that contrasts with other places I have been visiting in the last months and years: street fairs, community colleges, government offices, cafes, bars, technical schools and my own home office. Last week I was also here, at the Converging in Parallel policy workshop, to give a talk on the importance of understanding the metaphors used in broadcasting and telecommunications policy and research. I was on a telecom policy panel, a young woman sitting among men, a critical “sociologist” among economists and policy wonks. I talked about translation: one of the things I am learning as I start my “career” is about the importance of translation. Not just between languages (and between the ways of thinking that each different language permits), but also between different cultures: activist and policy-making cultures, government and university cultures. At the end of the Converging in Parallel conference, Sandra Braman pointed out the great advantages of doing progressive research in a “post-scientific” context, but also illuminated how this same context can be mobilized to silence debate or marginalize critical voices.

Critical social research is about engaging in different spaces, and creating the conditions for translation. But it’s a hard thing to do. What is an academic’s job? Is it to understand the many complex faces of reality, moving through different spaces, meeting and understanding actors, and balancing all of their perceptions? Is it to act as a translator – a mediator – between all of these actors? Or is it to reflect and write, to provide a critical perspective on the world, from a place just outside of it?

As I move from the monasticism of my writing process to the whirlpool of engagement and activism, I ask myself these questions. Which are the spaces where I can most engage? And where is my starting place, my “home turf”?

Pat says, “we create the discourses, and the frames for educating.” So perhaps that’s a place to start.