Monthly Archives: September 2006

The picnic table

At the Wizard of OS conference in Berlin, where I spent the weekend, I learned many things. Some things were about the wealth of networks, some others were about the Read-Write culture. These things came with fancy Powerpoint slides and speeches delivered from a stage by people with a lot of good ideas — and a lot of influence. Some things, presented on a smaller stage, challenged me with new ways of thinking about networks — of people, machines, code, images, and radio waves. The work of Simon Yuill stands out here, as does the creative “play” of my friends at Hive Networks. Others, like the talks by Onno Purbo, Macolm McDowell, and Bob Horovitz, braided together concepts old and new, creating the kind of thread that links actions like building a WiFi antenna out of a wok with careful advocacy for open radio spectrum at the international policy level.

But mostly I learned things at the picnic table. Between the big shiny venue where Lessig, Benkler and the other big names peeked out from under the lights, and the smaller hall where folks discussed everything from new copyright laws for digitally traded music to the “future of open-source software”, yellow umbrellas sheltered picnic tables, provided power for way too many laptops, and hosted experiments, late-night meetings, conversations, and chance meetings. At the picnic table we said, “Hey, do you two know each other? You should talk! And ten minutes later the two were four, and eight, and there was a meeting, and a list of things to do, and a volunteer project manager.

The picnic table is the antithesis of the boardroom, of the presentation room in the university department. No one makes you sit there, and you can leave when you want. You can ask dumb questions, or watch videos on your laptop, or produce the most fabulous DJ mix ever, or fall asleep listening to people debate whether network routing protocols should insist on centralization or whether they should promote a radical decentralization of a network . . . “and then”, someone says as I dozed, “we could do away with Internet Protocol all together”

The picnic table is the centre of radicalism, of the potential for innovation. It is, in short, the third place, reinterpreted in the age of open-source.


This picnic table, this culture of action, of experimentation, of using artistic practice and creative hacking as “proof-of-concept” that the networks we use to communicate don’t only have to be how they are, and might be able to be combined together to make the world (at least in some terms) a more just and beautiful place, is still such a privileged space. It’s taken me two years of listening at picnic table and barstools and in engineering lecture halls and in basements and living rooms, two years of listening and watching, writing notes and trying to understand what this box, this cable, this hardware, this dizzying rush of code across a screen, this invisible network might mean. Now I can sit at the picnic table and understand. I can take the ideas parcelled out in all the formal settings and make them make sense. I can make the link between politics and art and code. But just barely.

How do we get more people at the picnic table? Does it have to take two years to get there? If the issues are as important as the speeches inside the lecture halls seem to indicate, then there’s more reason to be outside trying to make them live. If not, the conversations at the picnic table will turn around themselves. It’s okay if the technological utopia doesn’t work out as planned. History says that it never has. But if the potential to make ANY kind of social change requires a “degree in Pointless Computer Physics” to happen, the Revolution is through before it’s really started.

WARNING – ACADEMIC WHUNKY-WHUNK! (Models and Representations of Infrastructure)

I have been thinking about the different ways communication networks/infrastructures are built. In particular, I have been trying to come up with a way to explain the relationship between built things and our understanding of built things , which is especially important when the built things are supposedly what let us communicate with one another. This is a salient point in the hype-o-rific Web 2.augh! universe, when we are constantly being told that we are building our own things even as they are being fed into some larger structure . . .

I’m playing with the idea that there are both models and representations of communications infrastructures, and that each plays a role in some kind of construction or innovation. How do they fit together? I’m not sure.

Models can be mental or regulatory models- bottom-up models, top-down models. Policy models. The model responds to the question: how is this system supposed to work? New models are sociotechnical in nature, and have economic and cultural aspects. A model can be and often is physical, but even new mental model – a new way of doing things, thinking about things, and structuring things. In previous generations of communication infrastructure a model was imposed from above. But Wi-Fi, and other kinds of ad-hoc communication infrastructure models, developed from below (and connected to representations of WiFi as emancipatory technology. However, the models can be applied in other representational contexts other than the ones in which they were developed; for example, the model mesh networking is now used in a different representational context.

Representations are cultural. We represent models, but representations might also create models – as new ways of thinking create new ways of doing. These are where we find differences in interpretations of models. Representations respond to the question of “what is this? What am I supposed to do with this?” Representations help us distinguish between change in models and change in what models MEAN. This is most obvious when we consider the case of sharing. A representation of sharing is not exactly the same as a model of sharing, but at the same time, it might be a way of eventually producing a new kind of model. For example, the representational connection between “free WiFi” and “open networks”, which involves an invocation of the other kinds of “free” and “open” representations appears to be creating a mental model of open infrastructure – unlike existing models (how, I can’t exactly explain).

Both representations and models are tangled up together. Untangling them means creating a distinction that rejoins that of the distinction between discourse and practice. This is dangerous stuff for someone who advocates the consideration of sociotechnical systems. However, I want to retain them to help to explain how cultural influences (in the domain of representations) interrelate and influence socio-economic and technical factors (in the domain of models) as various kinds of communication infrastructures develop.