Network Politics, Wireless Protocols, and Public Space / by Erik Born

Network Politics, Wireless Protocols, and Public Space

Erik Born

This paper unravels the implications of wireless technology (e.g., GPS, RFID, Wi-Fi) for our understanding of public space in the digital age. I argue that the current push for ubiquitous connectivity, even in community wireless networks and the open spectrum movement, still relies on a rhetoric of liberation that was central to post-war theories of broadcast media and neo-liberal policies of deregulation. In Europe, the post-war consensus on regulation remained that the state should oversee the distribution and use of the electromagnetic frequency spectrum, the main condition of possibility for broadcasting, in the interest of the public. However, free media movements came to attack the monopolies of state-controlled and privatized commercial media, calling for a new model of universal access and gradually bringing about the “post-network era.” As an ideal network topology, many of these movements latched onto Paul Baran’s technique of packet-switching and his model of distributed (or, “mesh”) networks. In contrast to both centralized and decentralized networks, distributed networks spread organization and control across the entire network, linking each node to another rather than to a central hub. This lack of internal hierarchy came to figure as the dominant model of many-to-many communication, seminally articulated in Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s chart of the emancipatory versus the repressive uses of media. Even after decentralization, however, the Net remains subject to a variety of controls often in the form of international standards and technical protocols, as Alexander Galloway has argued. Through critical readings of key texts in media theory (Baran, Enzensberger, Kittler), the historical development of wireless protocols (IEEE 802), current debates about urban wireless networks (“hotspots” vs. “Freifunk”), and hacktivist projects aimed at exploiting the unlicensed frequency spectrum (Weise7’s wireless book and Ricardo Dominguez’s Transborder Immigrant Tool), my paper will challenge the emancipatory rhetoric of distributed networks and raise questions about the struggle for ownership over wireless spaces: What politics inform the creation of public spaces for wireless connectivity? How might local practices link up with global processes in the creation of these networks? What forms of organization and control are instantiated in wireless protocols, and, to what extent could a “critically engineered wireless politics,” as Jussi Parikka calls it, find exploits in these networks, thereby suggesting new possibilities of connection and community?

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