DiY WiFi: Re-imagining Connectivity
Macmillan Palgrave Pivot
If you could re-make the internet, what would it be like?
This book critically examines the cultures and practices of a hand-made version of the internet. Forged around barbeques, located on rooftops and sheds and made of found, adapted and off-the-shelf materials, this original study documents the collective work of individuals committed to making ‘ournet, not the internet’.
Made from the ground up, or in this case from the backyard out, this is a uniquely cultural and deeply local digital communications network with trees, insects, makers’ skills and the weather all contributing to its distinct shape and character. Rather than simply replicate the internet, these digital tinkerers inscribe wireless broadband technology with new meanings and re-imagined possibilities of use. What make-do methods, mods and tales of resourceful ingenuity permit is another way of seeing how technologies come into being – and how they might be different.
Drawing on rich ethnographic material, Jungnickel’s research about the largest WiFi (Wireless Fidelity) community group in Australia provides an overdue account of the innovative digital cultures and practices of ordinary people making extraordinary things. Focusing on cultural technology use and creative misuse creates a compelling description of a unique version of the internet – an Australian one – and in the process enriches global understandings of wireless technology by signalling the potential for comparative studies.
The book also presents the first sustained study of homebrew high-tech culture via backyard technologists who imbue a Do-it-Yourself (DiY) ethos but do not do it alone – they Do-it-Together (DiT). This timely critique of collective DiT innovation in an increasingly networked society will be of interest to science and technology scholars and practitioners of maker culture.
This chapter opens with an account of the theft of a core antenna from the community wireless network. This sets the scene for a study of WiFi that is socially, materially and culturally embedded in a specific place and made by a group of individuals who collectively re-inscribe broadband technology with new meanings and re-imagined possibilities of use. I outline cores themes emerging throughout the book and briefly introduce the following chapters.
2. Who makes WiFi? (and why other makers matter)
WiFi is often understood (and overlooked) as a one-size-fits-all phenomenon that exists ‘everywhere’ and ‘anytime’ and is packaged in a pay-plug-and-play format by large scale telecommunication distributors, mainly as way to access the internet without wires. Yet, as this chapter illustrates, it is not ubiquitous or universal. In this case it is uniquely customised, culturally shaped, comprised of ordinary stuff in everyday places and made (and remade) by individuals on a daily basis. Drawing on STS, I argue that the global starts with the local. In other words, other makers matter.
3. Studying backyard technologists
This chapter begins by introducing the group, key characters and locations. Despite the prevalence of suburbia in Australian geography, backyards do not play an important role in constructions of national identity. I frame the study by arguing that mundane ordinary spaces, and attending materials and practices, play an important role in the development and understanding of everyday life and relationships to ICTs. I discuss the use of ethnographic methods and the challenges of dealing with constantly unfolding fieldsites and highlight some of the epistemological, methodological and practical issues that shaped fieldwork such as being documented as I documented others.
4. The ‘barbie’ and WiFi
This chapter is situated at WiFi meeting. I describe the nature of membership and explain different forms of network connection. Foregrounding the multi-dimensional, co-located and occasionally contradictory nature of WiFi representations, I discuss how they connect people together, aid recruitment and teach members about new applications. I argue that the resilience and responsiveness of the seemingly scattergun visual culture is well suited to the idiosyncrasies of WiFi, makers and their disparate ideas and approaches. I also introduce and explain the role of the barbeque or ‘barbie’ in the making of WiFi, arguing that it operates as a critical means of contending with the complexities of the technology by domesticating public spaces and cementing social ties.
5. Trees, birds, sunburn and other digital interruptions
When you take WiFi out of ‘hotspots’ and into the city itself it comes into contact with a range of social, technical and environmental actors. The network is stable. It has operated for over a decade and continues to grow in size and strength. Yet, members encounter an array of interruptions in the form of trees, birds, bugs, thieves, technical complications and weather. I show how rather than ignoring or tidying them up, WiFi makers build them into the network. This chapter explores how disconnections serve to connect makers to new ideas, people and places, signalling the possibility that the group’s ability to deal with constant indeterminacy and multiple realities affords it durability. Air-Stream make WiFi not in spite of interruption, but because of it.
6. Representing digital noise
This chapter focuses on ‘stumbling’, a routine technique employed by makers to look for and represent digital noise. I describe how it constructs a version of suburbia without fences, houses, roads or power lines and argue that stripping away familiar and mundane symbols of power and ownership serves to collapse distance between people and infrastructure, reconstructing in its place an uncertain digital landscape that relies as much on social cohesion and technological imagination as hands-on technical skill. This landscape however is not neutral or empty. Upon erasing some actors, others become visible. Analysis suggests stumbling attempts to represent a feral version of WiFi and that this (local) lens reveals power dimensions within these shifting invisible landscapes.
7. Mods and modding
‘Mods’ are modifications that come about when things do not quite fit as a result of changing conditions. They represent an almost infinite combinability of ideas, materials and applications and demonstrate makers’ aptitude for innovative responses. Drawing on examples I describe how makers mod not only technical materials but also find themselves tinkering with the broader technological landscape, social relations and stories as a means of dealing with socio-technical incoherence and instability. This chapter also discusses the DiT nature of the network, the fact it cannot be built alone. It requires the help of many others including families, partners, sisters, mothers, fathers and friends.
8. Homebrew high-tech
This chapter explores the seemingly contradictory intersection of homebrew and high-tech. Drawing on encounters between local ISPs and WiFi makers, I argue that this conflation signals a distinctive cultural way of imagining and making a version of wireless broadband highly localised to the suburban backyards of Adelaide. Building on the previous chapter, I examine the role of ‘making-do’: a distinctly Australian version of modding interlocked with the peculiarities of the local landscape, weather and colonial history. Sticky tape is also reviewed as a mundane tool and symbol of a way of working. Both concepts represent unique ways of re-imagining how innovation and inventiveness happens in the suburbs of Australia.
9. DiT technology cultures and other conclusions
As per the nature of the collective, multi-dimensional and at time messy practice of making WiFi, there is no single neat or narrow conclusion. This final chapter begins by returning to the field to contemplate the changes in Air-Stream practice and discussing the reasons and results of socio-technical change. I draw attention to key themes emerging throughout the book relating to connectivity, visual culture and DiY practice. Then, looking to the future, I conclude by speculating on the potential wider application of a DiT approach in materializing other seemingly complex and complicated innovation processes and systems, and asking what other extra-ordinary things can ordinary people make in their own backyards.