Networks and Landscapes

Just before I finally got home for good (where I am sitting, recovering from a cold and looking out my office window at the scattering leaves), I was at the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference in Arlington, Virginia. Along with my Canadian colleagues Leslie, Catherine, and Andrew, I participated in a series of panels on municipal broadband and WiFi networking. This series of panels made me think again about what exactly a network (or, for Mike, communications infrastructure) is.

At the TPRC, I saw Yochai Benkler present his work on the Wealth of Networks for the second time – compared to the WOS4 presentation it was much less conceptual and focused much more on examples. The debate on the panel turned primarily around questions of whether the “network effect” and the peer production that Benkler proposes is really an effective or substantial departure from other forms of production or ownership. It was a question, in essence, of whether network forms actually necessarily produce different kinds of behaviours or structures. Do networks necessarily give us something new? And if so, is it really revolutionary?

But we have to remember that communications networks are one of many human endeavors that alter the way we think, do, and feel. I am reading, for the third time, the landscape architect Paul Shepheard’s book: The Cultivated Wilderness: Or, What is Landscape . Shepheard tells lots of stories of walking across various landscapes, looking at the different kinds of traces of human habitation. At one point, he writes, “the new Ely bypass road swings past the city, cutting clean across the old radial roads as it does so. These fast-traffic highways are connected like a huge net across the country and are laid over an older net of smaller detail, which consists of market towns like Ely . . .I should call the old net a web, because of its time-woven quality. Net? Web? This is not about the bitstream, remember, but human settlement. The new net of fast highways has its own systems, its shopping malls and gas station eateries, its industrial parks and housing estates — you can spend all your time on one circuit and never touch the other” (p. 13-14).

It strikes me that this sense of a double-layered net over a physical landscape might have some resonance with our negotiation of information networks. There are many nets now, and many webs of connection. You can spend time on one and never touch the other – you can get faster download speeds for the things you buy on ITunes and never have any sense of what people used to call “virtual community.” Is this perspective, what is the role of the community-based network? Which scale is it built on? And who does it touch? What kinds of information landscapes are we building in this wilderness?