Making WiFi: A Sociological study of backyard technologists in suburban Australia
Studio INCITE, Goldsmiths College, University of London
Supervisor: Dr Nina Wakeford
Awarded: May 2009
My thesis explores the culture of a new digital technology – Wireless Fidelity (WiFi). Drawing on an ethnography of the largest not-for-profit community WiFi group in Australia, it examines how members construct a communications network that spans across the largely suburban city of Adelaide by connecting together home-made antennas, many of which are located in their own backyards. I describe how these backyard technologists collectively make WiFi using a diverse range of materials and improvised methods in places and at times outside conventional information communication technology (ICT) innovation contexts. Members imbue a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethic yet importantly they do not do it alone – they Do-It-Together (DIT).
The research begins by examining the role and importance of inscriptions and conscriptions established in science and technology studies (STS), particularly in the work of Latour and Woolgar (1979) and Henderson (1999). Because the study of visual culture links methods of rendering with particular ways of seeing the world, the production of graphs, diagrams and images are seen as pivotal to understanding how scientists and engineers collaborate, construct knowledge and recruit allies. Central to this literature is the idea of stable, rigorously ordered and immutable public ‘facts’ that reduce, or entirely erase ambiguity and alternative interpretation.
Foregrounding the many representations WiFi members make, I describe how regular encounters with trees, thieves, birds, possums, neighbours, technical complications, a myriad of materials and the weather are implicated in the daily practice of making WiFi. Rather than filtering out and tidying up daily interruptions, I show how members build them into their network, in the process of customising and adapting discarded, freely available and cheaply purchased materials, re-inscribing them in the context of their backyards with new meanings and re-imagined possibilities of use. In the process of making and the emerging objects they fuse together seemingly incommensurate mundane materials and methods with sophisticated technological skills and outcomes, resulted in unique local ‘home-brew high-tech’ interpretations that extend artefacts beyond the intentions of their original designers.
My analysis reveals the public exposure of the messy middlework of making WiFi and I explain that this practice is not a consequence of a fragile technology, the elastic nature of the group or an unpredictable environment but rather deliberately produced, critical to how they innovate, expand the network and recruit new members. Drawing on Actor Network Theory (ANT), I argue that the current understanding of visual/material culture in STS does not account for an expanded typology, that is, the possibility of other forms of representation that accommodate ambiguous, co-located and multi-dimensional knowledge. Moreover, attending to the nuances and textures of this homebrew high-tech network, this thesis establishes the presence of a distinct version of WiFi – an Australian WiFi – thus contributing to the study of different versions of the internet (Miller and Slater 2000; Goggin 2004; 2007; Ito et al 2005). It concludes by proposing alternate ways of approaching mess in STS and more broadly in the craft of knowledge production.
Further to exploring the cultures of ‘backyard technologists’ in these communities, my work also considers objects made by the researcher in ethnographic analysis. By this I mean the way blogs, websites, film, photographs, sketches and exhibitions are complicit in the making of sociological arguments.