Work – The theory side

Community Wireless Networks and Open-Source Software Development as forms of Civic Engagement?

Thank you to
Steph and Mike for their assistance in producing this. My apologies for not updating this post sooner

Technology development as civic engagement?
Faced with Putnam’s (2000) chilling evocation of a society where mediated relationships have us bowling alone, philosophers of technology and community informatics researchers have explored the potential for online communities and virtual engagement to fill the gap (see Feenberg and Barney, 2004). Yet the ability of ICTs to promote participation in one’s community may come from building, not using them. Community wireless networks use wireless internet technology to create alternative communications infrastructure. In Montreal, the community wireless network Ile Sans Fil (ISF) demonstrates how building this infrastructure also acts as a way to engage groups of people who might otherwise not participate in the civic life of their community. It also provides an opportunity to rethink the parameters of democratic participation.

Opportunties to Participate
ISF creates opportunities for youth to participate using skills that have not traditionally been considered useful in volunteer contexts. These skills include software programming, hardware installation and network management. While various governmental programs including Canada’s Netcorps program have encouraged youth with technical skills to use them in a volunteer context, ISF is a project founded by youth. Without having a specific mandate to serve youth or to attract them, it has a majority of young members, who devote volunteer time and energy to creating and maintaining a network of wireless internet hotspots. ISF’s volunteers are mostly male, with post-secondary educations, in their 20’s and 30’s. Most of them are employed, either full-time or as contract workers. This combination of factors makes ISF volunteers statistically anomalous, according to the National Survey of Giving (McLintock, 2004) which in 2000 reported a drop in the number of male volunteers, as well as those with university educations. The survey also notes that large cities have fewer volunteers than small towns. Has the valorization of the technical skills in the community technology setting created the possibility for new groups of people to become engaged?

Interviews and informal discussions with ISF members suggest that this is the case. One young member describes his social engagement as a programmer and network manager: “I want to build a community, but I don’t have any other skills . . . maybe later I will contribute to something else, like a hotline or something.” This man, who has just returned to university to study computer science after five years spent working “making other people’s money” at various large telecom companies, has never before volunteered, and explains that he spent his adolescence in his bedroom trying to program video games. He is a warm, talkative, charming, and enthusiastic member of the ISF core volunteer group.
Before talking to me in the context of social research, he said he had never really described his activity in terms of building community (although this is the stated mandate of ISF). Instead he explained that he wanted to work on the group’s software “because it was cool; because it would be a showstopper.”

Discourse, Practice, and the “hacker ethic”
This reluctance to declare that what one is doing is political may be characteristic of community engagement with technological objects. At ISF, as in many other CWNs, many of the core group members consider what they are doing as, in some way, “hacking” – either in the sense of altering (or improving) the inexpensive commercial wireless equipment that their software can be installed on, or in the sense of “hacking the city” – of reappropriating urban communications infrastructure. In the first instance, ISF members’ activities fall in line with those observed in other open-source software development cultures. In these cultures, “hacking” takes on political and social weight. Steven Levy, in his influential 1984 book Hackers, describes a “hacker ethic” as including the desire to defy authority and promote decentralization, and the belief that computers can transform the world for the better. Another important aspect of the ethic is that hackers should be judged on their work and not on their social status. Inasmuch as ISF might include aspects of a hacker ethic, this likely makes the group appear more open to young people not normally engaged in volunteerism. Not only are technical skills and knowledge of technical culture valuable, but it is the skills themselves, rather than qualifications, that are most important.

At the same time, the hacker discourse may explain the inability of some ISF members to conceive of their activities as political. As Gabriella Coleman writes, “the political is not something that hackers do instead it is done by and through the very act of hacking. The politics, often of transgression, is embedded within the fibers of the practice of hacking. The political dimension remains obscure since it comes from the rationalised practice of programming and technological manipulation” (Coleman, 2004, p. 2). ISF’s focus on “doing” rather than “talking” fits into this ethic, and may also engage people who, like the member quoted above, want to “make something cool” in the service of building community. However, as discussed below, “doing” can sometimes be exclusionary.

It seems clear that ISF and other CWNs can create not only new opportunities for engagement, but new ways of describing civic engagement. On the ISF mailing list, one core group member, a middle-aged man with an interest in high-tech but no other hobbies or activites, wrote in October, 2005:

I’m very happy at how Wireless internet has taken me away from my indoor computer to the outside world. Today I meet many people, discuss how this technology can help communities, develop new potentials for people. Wireless internet has improved me by being more social with people, and how to make communities talk to each other.

This unsolicited mail is one example of an emerging discourse within ISF, where the organization’s mandate and values are consistently being reworked. Discussion of the mandate of the group, which has shifted in the past year from “providing free public wireless internet access in Montreal” to “providing free public wireless internet access to mobile users in public spaces throughout Montreal, Canada . . . We believe that technology can be used to bring people together and foster a sense of community.” The second section, defining a belief in fostering community, provides a clear link between technological experimentation and community development. This link may encourage ISF members to think and talk about their activities in terms of community-building.

Development of social capital
By engaging a group of people who would otherwise not be engaged, ISF also acts as am means of building local social capital. Pierre Bourdieu defines social capital as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (1986) Through informal meetings and work on a common project, ISF provides a network of non-institutionalized relationships for people who would not otherwise have the benefit of developing social capital in the high-tech industry. ISF’s project is well-known and highly regarded, so people without existing high levels of social capital (students, workers at large hierarchical organizations, or self-taught amateurs) can contribute to and draw upon social capital that otherwise would be out of reach. For example, membership within ISF has provided group members with free entry to networking evenings at the Society for Arts and Technology, passes to the Linux Expo, as well as invitations to present and visit with other community networking groups, as well as attend national and international conferences related to community technology and community content. ISF has received extensive media coverage, and over a dozen members have been featured in media reports in the past year.

One young software developer was invited to present his “map hack” at an international conference. His university newspaper treated this invitation to a meeting of “Free Information Infrastructures” with the same enthusiasm as other students’ placements with engineering firms. The same student and ISF member also visited MIT to discuss the same project. Clearly, membership in ISF can yield social benefits. This may motivate people to donate their time to the group.

Furthermore, ISF has resisted developing a unified mission or goal. It is simultaneously a social group for technophiles, a place to experiment with technology, and a community organization linked in to Montreal’s community technology (and community service) sector. This means it provides different kinds of social capital to different people by creating different kinds of networks. This kind of fluid structure is referred to as a heterarcy, where several different value and organizational structures coexist. Fred Turner summarizes David Stark’s concept of the heterarchy in this way: “In an influential study of firms in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, Stark christened this sort of mixture “heterarchy.” Within a heterarchy, Stark explained, one encounters multiple, and at times competing, value systems, principles of organization, and mechanisms for performance appraisal” (2005, p.509). A problematic outgrowth of a network form in which precise borders have been replaced with unstable flows, a heterarchy describes the way that several competing networks contribute different values and organizational structures to a single entity. While a heterarchical organization is sometimes frustrating (one ISF member commented on the mailing list: “Ile Sans Fil, it slices, it dices, it has more mandates than ever”), it does permit a variety of social networks to overlap in one place, and therefore, might encourage the development of different kinds of social capital

However, it is not clear whether ISF’s social capital extends to those outside of the privileged, masculine world of high-tech. Only three of its members are female, and they are for the most part engaged in “soft” activities such as marketing and development or content coordination, as opposed to “hard” activities like coding. Many of the ISFers I talked to seemed to value coding and technical development, perhaps because of its difficulty and esoteric nature, but also because coding was perceived as “doing something hard.” This valuation of the difficult and technical (as well as a respect for “elegant” and audacious solutions) may be part of the “hacker ethic” that defines certain aspects of the culture of ISF. Unfortunately, it also prioritizes skills that, even if they are not traditionally associated with non-profit or community work, are generally associated with high levels of education and training, and which are often socially constructed as masculine. In certain ways, then, the very flexibility and “action” oriented culture that makes ISF attractive to young men also may make it unattractive to other groups (women, working people, people with lower levels of education, retired people), potentially leading to a narrowing in the group’s perspective.

Rethinking Social Capital
Work with ISF has revealed potential new ways both of promoting civic engagement and furthuring the development of social capital. ISF’s status as a heterarchy, as well as the integration of certain elements of the “hacker ethic” into the group’s discourse, suggest that traditional notions of social capital as based in institutions may need to be reconsidered, especially when such social capital encourages previously disengaged people to play an active role in improving (in one way or another) their community.Perhaps it is this potential, rather than that found in the chat rooms of virtual communities, that provides the ability for ICTs to bring people together.


Bourdieu, Pierre. The forms of capital. In: Richardson, J., (ed.) Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. New York: Macmillan, 1986.

Coleman, Biella. “The (copylefted) Source Code for the Ethical Production of Information Freedom”. Available here

Feenberg, Andrew and Darin Barney. Community in the Digital Age: Philosophy and Practice. Toronto: Rowan and Littlefield, 2004.

Levy, Steven. Hackers. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1984.

McLintock, Norah. Understanding Canadian Volunteers: Using the National Survey on Giving and Volunteering to Build a Volunteer Program. Toronto: Canadian Centre for Philanthrophy, 2004.

Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000

Turner, Fred. “Where the Counterculture Met the New Economy: The Well and the Origins of Virtual Community.” Technology and Culture 46, no. 3 (2005): 485-512.