Category Archives: OII

The Future of Community Wi-Fi – you’ll have to buy a coffee

Back in the day, we shared Wi-Fi.  We kept our connections open, and imagined that this would be a way to get to know our neighbours, or to build community.  So excited were we that Sociable Design created a “Wi-Fi Thank You.” to start making some of those connections between people connected in the ether. Cities and governments came up with ways of sharing Wi-Fi too:  it spawned a whole industry in the United States (and more than a few PhD theses).  We scholars came up with models to describe how this sharing could define Wi-Fi as a public good – as a communications infrastructure that didn’t have to be privately owned and that would benefit a broad range of citizens.

But it would appear that the days of sharing are numbered.  Ofcom’s “Online Infringement of
Copyright and the Digital Economy Act 2010” makes people who share Wi-Fi liable for any copyright infringement on their network, as PCPro reports today.  The Act states,

“We consider that a person or an undertaking receiving an internet access service for its own purposes is a subscriber, even if they also make access available to third parties.”

These rules make anyone who shares, liable for copyright infringment – potentially to the tune of £250,000.00.  Heavy legal provisions have already made community Wi-Fi projects dry up and disappear in France, and in Germany Wi-Fi must be locked by law.  So much for the internet as a public good!

So, what to do?  Well, Ofcom’s consultation is open until June 10, so you can submit a response . . .

Or, you could follow the letter of the law.  The proposed act states that if Wi-Fi is provided along with another good or service, the provider is considered to be an ISP – and the Act’s provisions don’t apply to ISPs with fewer than 400,000 customers.  That means hotel lobbies and coffee shops aren’t considered as individual subscribers – because there’s a financial transaction somewhere. By my reckoning, we don’t normally pay for public goods. But maybe the cup of coffee could be really, really cheap – so cheap, we’d still be sharing.

FabLabs and Graffiti Sunglasses – FutureEverything reflections

A few days after the end of FutureEverything, the fog is beginning to lift.  The conference and festival were a whirlwind of ideas and images.  I visited the Manchester FabLab, a space where physical prototyping tools are available for use by anyone who wants to build electronics, sew, fabricate 3D articles or etch large things with precision table saws.  It was an inspiring example of the new, more social contexts for DIY and making. Getting better access to tools in a social space is a way to gain technical skills, yes, but also another form of social organization and collaboration.

The winner of the festival prize, the EyeWriter also demonstrated the connection between social action and technology.  It’s open source software that can be connected to an inexpensive, sunglass-mounted eye tracker that reads eye movements and transforms them into line drawing images that can be painted on to the sides of buildings (or other large areas).  One possible use is as an assistive technology for disabled graffiti artists.  The number of disabled graffiti artists in the world may be rather small, but that’s hardly the point.  The big idea is that a simple, elegant piece of technology can give someone whose movements are restricted in space the ability to make very public interventions.  On Saturday, one of its inventors, Evan Roth, described the work of the Graffiti Research Labs as working in the overlap between free culture, open source, and art.  The group’s projects are all elegant and funny explorations of art and hacking.

My own talk, about social media publics and the affordances of Filter, Feed and Funnel, was likely a good deal less elegant.   My goal was to provide some handy concepts that might be fun or useful to people thinking and playing with media tools.  HighWired has live blogged it here, and eventually I will post my own notes – or even link to the video so you can see me wave my hands around in the air.

FutureEverything – Day 1

There’s so much going on at the FutureEverything conference that it’s difficult to sort through the experiences to find a highlight.  One that certainly stands out, from among the very reflective and critical conversations about technology, social change and open data, is the success of GloNet, a new platform for global participations in conferences.  I’m normally somewhat dismissive of “beaming in” participants, but GloNet has won me over.  It’s a multi-city network, connecting participants in Vancouver, Manchester, Sao Paulo, Instanbul and Sendai.  Most significantly, in each city workshop teams had been working with participants (and rallying audiences – early in the am in Vancouver) to respond to some shared questions about technology and the city.  The result was that the participants in other cities were not remote, but very present – and also connected by a networked living room that could front on the other locations.

Each city site was connected with a different organization: at W2 in Vancouver they asked questions about how technology and engagement works in different cities, and the

Tribes in cities are reinforced by our use of social media – working with the idea that this reduces the amount of serendipity in the city.  W2 in Vancouver explored how or whether social media would benefit the poorest in Vancouver.  When we talk about open data open standards open source we are talking about conversations that happen differently.  Were we before on a trajectory towards isolation, and has this trajectory been reversed?

Questions were also raised about the power dynamics of the ownership of social media platforms, and also about the presence or absence of serendipity within systems run on algorithms.

There was enthusiasm from Adam Greenfield about the possibility of autonomous creativity to solve the challenging problems, based on a technical infrastructure of open data and open culture.

Open data was a defining theme for the day.  Nigel Shadbolt described how open government data moved from idea to reality, and artists presented projects involving everything from maps of Oyster card transactions to data in the forms of games.  There is a sort of gleeful sense that more data will make the world a better place – I agree, although I think that the structures (the media, indeed) through which we encounter and make sense of these data are what really become important.

DIY Citizenship, social media and social change at FutureEverything

I’m getting ready to head to FutureEverything in Manchester, an amazing festival of art/technology/ideas that runs from May 12-15.  The conference/ideas stream features several interesting tracks including discussions on open data, local broadband, and collaboration.  I’ll be speaking on DIY citizenship, social media and social change.

Since my panel collaborators Mushon Zer-Aviv and Alexandra Deschamps-Sosino are probably more connected to how revolutions in design and availability of technologies are connected with innovation and participation, I thought I’d talk a bit about how social media affordances have provided us with new models for citizenship, and what we can do with these models.  I’ll provide a bit of history about how citizens role in discussing and participating in politics have been thought about – and organized – in the past, and how media have played a role.  Then I’ll discuss the current media environment, hopefully asking some hard questions about how we use the participation that our environment offers to sustain our citizenship and work for social change.

I’m also a speaker blogger, and am looking forward to exploring the explosive world of art, thought and music that the festival promises to be.  More later . . .

Video “rant” on social media politics

I’m late in reposting this from the excellent virtual panel at HASTAC, but here’s my video “rant” about the disconnect between social media politics and parliamentary politics.  In the video, I’m all riled up because it’s the morning after the passage of the Digital Economy Act, but I think the wider point holds:  politics isn’t connected with social media advocacy, but neither is social media advocacy a reliable substitute for democratic politics.

Alison Powell: Future Social Science On and With Digital Media

Mind the Gaps? Connecting UK Digital Advocates

Politicians have failed us: that seems to be the consensus after last week’s Digital Economy Bill fiasco. So now what? The social media sphere is still buzzing, and the Open Rights Group has experienced a surge in membership. Their web forums are beginning to identify opportunities for local campaigns. There is increasing acknowlegement that digital rights issues are fundamental to democracy, and that the interests of rightsholders whose business models depend on exclusion of access should not trump the communication rights of innocent individuals. Yet much remains to be done to capitalize on these opportunities to galvanize digital democracy. The UK is the site of much innovation in democratic social media from mysociety’s TheyWorkForYou which connects Hansard data to voters by location, to more mundane (but essential) projects like CTC’s FillThatHole which allows you to report dangerous potholes. But there’s still a risk that all of this innovation is contributing to an echo chamber.

I will be commenting on the Digital Economy Bill wash-up vote and the risks and benefits of social media democratic action as part of a virtual panel organized by Christian Sandvig for the HASTAC conference held online from April 15-17. Check out the conference and the panel, and please share your comments and thoughts.

I’m also interested, in a more scholarly way, in how all of this advocacy fits together. As anyone who studies social movements knows, digitally-organized coalition and issue based movements risk propagating “electronic panics.” Not only that, but coalition members may have to focus on narrowly shared goals and step carefully around issues where they don’t agree. I’ll be exploring how this works with UK PrivacyOS workshop in Oxford this week, digging down into the relationship between privacy and Net Neutrality advocacy. These both seem like especially niche areas, but I’m hoping that understanding their relationship can help to model other ways of connecting advocates at this especially important time.

Digital Economy Bill’s passage shows gap between politics and politicians

The Digital Economy Bill passed last night.  As thousands watched on the BBC, most MPs skipped the debate, which was over in two hours.  And despite 20,000 letters being sent and nearly 25,000 tweets encouraging MPs to submit this bill to rigorous debate, only 227 of the 647 MPs voted (see a great stats mashup here).  The bill was washed into the House of Lords this afternoon.

This situation exposes the rift between politics and politicians.  The bill was broadly debated and discussed by internet researchers, lawyers, advocates – even the British Library had a consultation on proposals to make providers of free WiFi networks liable for copyright infringements undertaken on their networks.  Deliberative democracy was in full force.  But the politicians fell down on the job – with, perhaps, the exception of MP Tom Watson, who has become a minor Internet celebrity for consulting his constituents’ remarks on his Twitter feed during the debate.

This could well be the political crisis that pushes for democratic reform in the UK.  At the very least, as several commentators point out, it demonstrates that social media is transforming politics, and also that digital rights issue impact more people than just the tech community: poorly thought out legislation on disconnection could impact public institutions like the British Library, as well as small businesses.  As the election campaign starts again, let’s hope that politicians can get back in touch with politics.

“You Can’t Tweet That!” Personal Branding and Public Intellectuals

Lewis Gordon at Truthout argues that the market model of academia has killed the public intellectual.  He argues that market pressures, including heavy competition for limited jobs, and the focus on professional academics as masters of technical and textual knowledge has forced public intellectuals into creating the equivalent of academic literature reviews every time they want to talk about major issues of public interest.  He contrasts this market-driven logic with some of the public intellectuals of the past, who rejected the spoils of faculty positions and prestigious prizes.  He writes:

For many, it’s impossible to imagine intellectuals like Fanon and Sartre as anything short of holier than thou, even though neither of them argued that academics should not have academic pursuits and seek academic rewards. They simply asked for the rest of us not to pretend that the world is somehow better off by our being rewarded for such pursuits and especially so in the most prestigious representations of establishment.

A key pillar of this argument is a critique of fame – or, at the very least, the commoditization of academic fame.  In my office today there was much discussion of how we young academics are expected to maintain a personal brand.  Every tweet, every blog post could be read by future employers or future students, and all must be kept consistent, in content and style, with what we are expected to produce as knowledge workers.  And as social media is time-sensitive, the brand must be maintained at all times.  The reward for maintaining this image is an academic job, as Gordon points out, but it is also fame within the social media sphere.

This is a double-edged sword for anyone who (like me) has aspirations as a public intellectual.  On the one hand, as the Chronicle of Higher Education has pointed out, many factors combine to limit the number of academic posts.  With more competition, productivity becomes important.  So turn off Twitter and stop reading blogs.  Write that article, and ignore the Party on the Internet. But leaving aside the perilous labour conditions and the market-driven environment that might await once one gets the academic post, there’s also the immediate question of how much to engage with the flow of debate rushing through the social media sphere.  To catch the stream, one must maintain a different sort of personal brand – one that depends on constant and high quality participation.

I disagree with Gordon’s claim that it’s essentially impossible to be a true public intellectual under current market conditions.  I think it is possible, but it comes with a heavy pressure of time and participation that doesn’t seem to be well understood or supported by the academy.  How do others negotiate the different demands of academic and advocacy social media worlds?  What goes on the Twitter stream, and what stays off?

Broadband Adoption in Low-Income Communities

The Social Science Research Council has just released a major report:  Broadband Adoption in Low-Income Communities.  Based on a unique qualitative study of the people traditionally on the margins of the policy-making process (low-income, minority, non-English speaking) it provides a unique view of the barriers to broadband adoption and effective use that remain in the United States.  Some of the core findings:

  • Broadband access is increasingly a requirement of socio-economic inclusion, not an outcome of it—and residents of low-income communities know this.
  • Price is only one factor shaping the fragile equilibrium of home broadband adoption, and price pressures go beyond the obvious challenge of high monthly fees. Hardware costs, hidden fees, billing transparency, quality of service, and availability are major issues for low-income communities.
  • Libraries and other community organizations fill the gap between low home adoption and high community demand, and provide a number of other critical services, such as training and support. These support organizations are under severe pressure to meet community connectivity needs, leading to widespread perceptions of a crisis in the provider community.

A major challenge for public policy makers is understanding how to make decisions about people who are unlike themselves.  In the past, this has meant creating “evidence-based policy” based on polling or survey data.  But now policy-makers are beginning to understand how qualitative research can provide the detail and context they need.  This study shows how this research can contribute to evidence-based policy:  it complements a phone survey commissioned by the FCC.

The Social Media Echo Chamber

The Pew Internet and American Life project released their findings on young people’s use of social media yesterday. Apparently young people are less likely to use Twitter than adults aged 25-40 (although teenage girls are an exception). They are also less likely to blog. I don’t think that this survey data indicates that young people aren’t engaged in meaningful social life online or elsewhere – youth do lots of socializing online. This finding should remind us that participating in social media is not a unified experience. The relationships that committed Twitterers of a certain age construct (your author included) may be more representative of our age and demographic than indicative of social media itself.

No, what I’m thinking about is along the lines of what Christian Sandvig is working on: these applications are now becoming infrastructures for participation. To understand them, we need to know more about how they are built, how they work, and who controls them. Yes, we want to make things together, and we want to make relationships with people. It’s easier to do this using applications like Facebook Twitter, and YouTube. But this also means creating a relationship with the platform itself. The algorithms to which we’ve delegated the work of connecting and communicating also have agency. We don’t know much about them, in the main. Sometimes, we get a small view into the algorithms of certain systems – this week, I learned more about the School of Everything and how its search and matching

The question of social media use and agency is not just a question of knowing or being able to understand the design process. If different generations or social groups want to relate to each other in different ways, then there’s social interest in understanding how different infrastructures shape and are shaped by those relationships.

I feel that sometimes, the social media world that I’m part of acts like an echo chamber, with the kinds of relationships that “people like me” form getting reproduced by our practices – and perhaps even by our media infrastructures.  We start thinking that social media works a certain way because that’s the way it works for us.  I think it’s critical that research understand both ends of this process – the way systems are designed, and the potentially very different kinds of things that designs make possible, among different kinds of people.  Otherwise we’ll all simply be shouting into our own social media echo chambers.