The Rise of the Network Commons, Chapter 1 (draft)

The Rise of the Network Commons is the working title of a new book which I am currently writing. It returns to the topos of the wireless commons on which I worked during the early 2000s. In this new version, combining original research from my German book Freie Netze (2004) and new research conducted in the context of the EU funded project Confine, the exciting world of wireless community network projects such as and Freifunk, Berlin, gets interspersed with philosophical reflections on the relationship between technology, art, politics and history. This is the first draft of the first chapter. In the final version, texts may significantly change. Critique and comments are welcome. You can send your opinion either to me in email or ask me for an account to post comments here armin (a) easynet dot co dot uk.

The World of and the Dispositif of Network Freedom

On my recent visit to Barcelona in the context of the Confine project, founder Ramon Roca took me to Gurb, the village he comes from. There, in 2003 was started when Ramon realized that he would never get good bandwidth at a fair price in this remote area in sight of the foothills of the Pyrenees. Ramon, who is an IT professional but keeps his working life and activities with separated, found that he could get broadband by using WiFi to connect to a public building in the outskirts of a nearby small town, Vic. Since then, has grown to become the largest Wifi community network in Europe, with currently more than 25.000 nodes. It is not entirely correct anymore to call it a wireless community network since a growing number of nodes is created by fiber-optic cable. Since Ramon and his collaborators have found out how relatively easy it is to work with fiber he is on a new mission, to get fiber to the curb to as many houses as possible.

Visiting Gurb and talking to Ramon for nearly a full day has revitalized my fascination for wireless (and wired) community networks. I have written a book on wireless community networks in 2003, in German, under the title Freie Netze (Free Networks). The choice of title back then had deliberately emphasised the analogy between Free Networks and Free Software. The title had been inspired by two very different influences. On one hand there had been Volker Grassmuck's early book Freie Software ( Volker's magisterial work provided deep insight into the history and politics of Free Software and stood out for me as an example how a book on wirelesss community networks should be written. The other inspiration had been provided by a sweeping lecture in Vienna in June 2003 by Eben Moglen, lawyer of the Free Software foundation and legal brain behind the licensing model of Free Software, the General Public Licence (GPL). Moglen's thunderous and captivating speech had presented the combination of Free Software, Free Hardware and Free Networks like a kind of holy trinity of the everything-free-and-open movement. Moglen's conclusion was that while Free Software was already an accomplished fact, and free hardware was the hardest bit, free networks were a viable possibility, yet there was still a long way to go to attain critical mass.

My book had come maybe a few years too early. When it appeared, some of the most important wireless community networks of today, such as Freifunk, Berlin, Funkfeuer, Austria, or, were either inexistent or existed still in embryonic form only. The model of wireless community networks on which my book had been based had been created by in the UK. was the outcome of an improvised workshop in December 1999 in Clink Street, near London's creative net art hub Backspace. I will describe the history of Consume in more detail below, but one key aspect of that initiative was that it was launched by non-techies. James Stevens, founder of Backspace, and Julian Priest, artist-designer-entrepreneur, provided the impetus for DIY wireless networking by sketching plans for a “model 1” of WLAN based community networking on a napkin during a tempestuous train journey in late summer 1999. Their “Model 1” - a name chosen for its association with Henry Ford's first mass produced car, the Ford Model 1 or Thin Lizzy – was a techno-social network utopia.

The relatively young discipline of Science Studies teaches us that the technical and the social cannot or should not be considered as categorically separated. Technologies are “socially produced” is one of the key phrases in the discourse of science studies. They are not existing outside the human world but are the product of specific societies which exist under specific conditions and circumstances. Technologies are hybrids between nature and society, as science studies author Bruno Latour puts it. Moreover, a specific school of science studies, the Social Construction of Technological Systems (SCTS) has studied the co-evolution of large technological systems and social structures. SCTS pioneer Thomas P. Hughes, who studied the building of the first nationwide electrical grid, has found that there are strong co-dependencies between technological and social systems. While there is undeniably a strong influence on the shaping of technologies exerted by business interests, Hughes' work emphasizes co-dependencies between technologies and the people who build and maintain them, the technologists or techies – a term I will use from now on because it allows to refer to both academic computer scientists and researchers and autodidactic hackers, whereby I hope my use of the term is not seen as derisive in any way.

Engineers and skilled workers involved in large technological projects bring certain predispositions to projects; as projects evolve, the communities of techies develop certain habits and ways of working. The technological and social system build a unity which determines the ways how those technologies evolve in the future. What we can learn from science studies is that neither is science objective (in the strict sense of the word), nor is technology neutral. To believe the opposite would either constitute scientific objectivism - a rather outdated form of scientific positivism – and technological determinism, which is the belief that technology alone is the main factor shaping social developments.

James Stevens and Julian Priest, founders of Consume, are neither scientific positivists nor technological determinists. They conceived Model 1 as a techno-social system from the very start. There ideas combined aspects of social and technological self-organisation. In tech-speak, the network they aimed at instigating was supposed to become a Wide Area Network (WAN). But while such large infrastructural projects are usually either built by the state or by large corporations, James and Julian thought that this could be achieved by bottom-up forms of organic growth.

Individual node owners would set up wireless network nodes on rooftops, balconies and window sills. Each node would be owned and maintained by its owner, who would also define the rules of engagement with other nodes. The network would grow as a result of the combination of social and urban topologies. The properties of the technology - well strictly speaking there is no such thing as property of technology as I just explained but lets reduce complexity for a moment - impose certain restrictions. WLAN as the underlying technology of WiFi is called in more technical circles, operates in a part of the electromagnetic spectrum that does not pass through obstacles such as walls. Therefore, from one node to the next there needs to exist uninterrupted line-of-sight. Node-owners need a way of identifying each other in order to create a link. According to the properties of internetworking protocols each of those links is a two-way connection, which means that data can travel as easily in one direction as in the other. Furthermore, node owners would agree to allow data to pass through their nodes. There would not only be point-to-point connections from one node to the other, but larger networks, where data can be sent and received via several nodes. Such a wide area community network would also have gateways to the Internet in order to allow exchange of information between the local wireless community network and the wider networked world.

Those desired characteristics of Model 1 were not actually invented by Julian and James. Those properties already existed, deep inside the technologies we use to connect, but working for most parts unnoticed by those who use them. The key term has already been introduced above, without further explanation, it is the “protocols” that govern the flow of information in networked communication structures. Protocols are conventions worked out between techies to decide how the flow of data in communication networks should best be organised. The basic protocols on which the net is running, such as the Internet Protocol (IP) and the Transport Control Protocol (TCP) have been defined decades ago by engineers and computer scientists working on the precursors of the net, Arpanet and NSF-net. Some people would go as far as saying that the Internet is neither the actual physical structure of cables and satellites used to connect, nor the content that travels via such structures but it is embodied in the suite of protocols, commonly referred to as TCP/IP (those two are usually mentioned but there are many more). The protocols are the essence of the net because they give it its key characteristics. I am not sure of this is not a very refined form of technological determinism, but I would like to leave this question open for a moment.

The reason for this hesitation is that the protocols are not identical with the technology that uses them. The protocols are conventions that can be described in textual form. The way how this is done is through so called Request for Comments (RFCs). Since the dawn of the net RFCs have been defined in a way that runs counter to common understandings how technologies are created. RFCs are approved by techies who congregate under the umbrella of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The arcane decision making mechanisms of the IETF have since the very start been governed by maxims such as “rough consensus and running code”. People who develop new Internet technologies present them to their peers who then react by making noises such as humming or whistling. Criteria for approval are not theoretical consistency but weather they actually do something or not. The robustness and the freedom of the net is guaranteed, despite the lack of central coordination, by the self-organised decision making power of those techies who meet at the IETF. While a lot of those people may have jobs with large corporations, when they meet at IETF conferences the still decide as technicians who adhere to their own codes of human responsibility.

It is amazing, because despite the commercialisation of the net this has not fundamentally changed. Corporations and governments may seek to wrest more and more control over the net, and while they are actually quite successful in doing so in some areas, the social protocols of decision making enshrined in the mores of the techno-social communities have so far been able to withstand all such assaults. On the layer of the protocols the net was and is still “free”.

Thus, when James and Julian wrote out the formula of growth for Model 1, they referred to a freedom to connect that is inherent to the way in which the Internet was originally conceived and the way it still functions now, on the layer of the protocols. The knowledge and awareness of that fact had become buried by new layers built on top of older layers in the course of technological improvement but also the commercialisation of the net in the 1990s. was started at the cusp of what was then called the New Economy, a stock exchange boom fueled by the rise of information and communication technologies in general and PCs and the Internet in particular. The 1990s had been a very exciting decade which saw the rise from obscurity of the net from a communication technology used by scientists and a small number of civil society organisations, artists and freaks in the late 1980s, early 1990s, to a new mass medium driving and being driven a gigantic economic machinery. In the process, a lot of the properties that had been dear to the early inhabitants of the net, the digital natives, had become either sidelined or overshadowed by commercially driven interest and the secret workings of the deep state.

Model 1 was thus both a new techno-social invention but also a recurse to the original Internet Arcadia. Against the tide of rising commercialisation and the inequalities and distortions that came with it, wireless community networks were supposed to bring back a golden age of networked communication, of equality and freedom. Technical and social properties were conflated into a model of self-organisation. The possibility for that was provided by a small and often overlooked feature of the technology. 802.11b was the technical name of the wireless network protocol as used at about 1999. It allowed two different operating modes, one where each wireless network node knew its neighbors and could receive and send data based on fixed routing tables, and another one, the ad-hoc mode, where nodes would spontaneously connect with each other. The ad-hoc mode was supported by routing protocols that would be best suited for the wireless medium. In a fixed network with cables, it is of advantage to work with fixed routing protocols. When data arrives, the network node decided where to send it, based on its knowledge of the topology of the network. But in wireless networks that topology constantly changes. Nodes can break down due to atmospheric or environmental influences. The quality of connection can change dramatically because of disturbances in the electromagnetic medium. Or a truck parks in front of your house and the line-of-sight is suddenly gone.

For this reason, started to get interested in a technology called mesh networking. In the year 2000 mesh network protocols were still very much in their infants. There was a working group called Mobile Ad-hoc Networking (Manet), supported by the US military. In London, a small company was building something called Meshcube. It was a working technology but it was not really open source and only the developer knew how to run it. When started to work with mesh network technology, this seemed to be a utopian technology. While neither James nor Julian were techies, they had the support of some very skilled hackers, but neither of them was capable of significantly developing mesh network protocols. Mesh networking was a dream, something that was already on the horizon but not yet there.

This was a pattern established in 2000 and still very much in place in the year 2014: when the problems of mesh networking would be solved, wireless community networks would flourish and become unstoppable. Social qualities, such as self-organization without centralized forms of control, were mapped onto technological properties, such as the ability of machines to automatically recognize each other and connect to build a larger cloud of networked nodes. The idea of network freedom – the ability to connect without having to apply to a central point of governance, and without having to go through a company such as a telecommunications operator (telco) - was supposed to further communication freedom, and thus the rights and ability of people to express themselves and communicate freely without top-down hierarchical control. The convergence of those ideas I call the dispositif of mesh networks and network freedom.

I am appropriating the term dispositif from Michel Foucault who used it to “refer to the various institutional, physical, and administrative mechanisms and knowledge structures which enhance and maintain the exercise of power within the social body” (Wikipedia:

Our mesh network dispositif does not (yet) add up to all society, but it is something that is widely shared among techies building wireless community networks. It is a discoursive behaviour, but also a set of believes and a set of material assemblages. Now that, assemblage, is another term that I appropriate freely from a a French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze. While the dispositif does not exist outside time, it is somehow hovering above the concrete historical moment. In this way, the dispositif of mesh networks has influenced wireless community networks since the year 2000. The assemblage, while also consisting of material and non-material components, is concretely manifest in the historical moment. The mesh network dispositif promises to bring about an era of unrestricted and seemless communication, free from technological and social constraints. This dispositif historically legitimates itself by the way the Internet was originally conceived. At the same time it contains the promise of a future when the net will be again what it once had been.

When I came to Barcelona in July 2014, I was thrilled to see that as part of the EU funded research project Confine a project was under way to develop Quick Mesh Project (QMP). QMP is a so called free firmware, a Linux based operating system for network devices. Many people now have at home wireless routers. When you buy Internet access from a provider, you often also get a box that allows to wirelessly connect to the net. QMP would replace the operating system of such a device with a much improved version, one that speaks the language of mesh network protocols. To give a simple example, if in a street of apartment blocks everybody who owns a wireless router replaces the firmware with QMP and the puts the router on the window sill, all those machines would automatically connect and build a network without using any cables or other hardware from commercial providers. It would make it easy and simple to connect without having to go deep into system settings. This has now changed from being a faraway utopian goal to something that is literally around the corner.

It may or may not succeed. One problem with that is that it resembles what Saskia Sassen described as an engineer's utopia. Techies, weather they are academically trained computer scientists, telecommunications engineers or self-taught hackers, tend to believe in the unlimited potential of technology. They see the potential of a technology. There is nothing that speaks against that, on the contrary. It needs such people who are capable of dreaming a different future based on creative bending and twisting of technologies. The problem, however is, that far-sighted techies tend towards a linear extrapolation of technologies into the future without considering other factors, such as politics, the economy, the fundamental differences between people in class based societies and so on and so forth. In this way, the highly productive mesh network dispositif gets turned into the dreamworld of the Internet cornucopia. The technology gets imbued with characteristics that are actually outside it and depend on factors beyond the influence of creative technologists. It becomes a messianic technology in the way the great philosopher of culture and technology Walter Benjamin theorized it in the 1930s.

(to be continued ...)

  • 1. The same Wikipedia page further defines the dispositif as “the interaction of discursive behavior (i. e. speech and thoughts based upon a shared knowledge pool), non-discursive behavior (i. e. acts based upon knowledge), and manifestations of knowledge by means of acts or behaviors [...]. Dispositifs can thus be imagined as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, the complexly interwoven and integrated dispositifs add up in their entirety to a dispositif of all society." (quoted from Siegfried Jäger: Theoretische und methodische Aspekte einer Kritischen Diskurs- und Dispositivanalyse