In class last week, we spent about 90 minutes arguing over the merits of community networks. The real question was: why would we want network technologies overlaying physical space? Don’t we have enough “connection?” Shouldn’t urban planners and architects help us figure out ways to “disconnect?” The argument I offered against this proposition was a harm-reduction model. I suggested that networks WILL in fact overlay our cities – they do already. The problem we have before us is not whether we should appropriate new technologies for urban life, but how we should shape those technologies to urban life. With that in mind, I find Michael Arnold’s recent article in The Journal of Community Informatics to be quite instructive. Entitled “The Concept of community and the character of networks,” the article begins with the assumption that there is too little theoretical work being done in the field of community informatics. While there are several empirical studies, few have contextualized their findings into broader theoretical frameworks. Arnold adopts what he calls an “a-modern” approach – “community networks are both technical devises and social arrangements; they invoke the identity of a network and a community, and manifest both hierarchic and heterarchic structures” (3-4).
His point is simple, yet surprisingly understated in the field. Digital networks create conditions for personal and hierarchic structures. They supply perfect conditions for surveillance and self-interested interactions. At the same time, they provide opportunities for dialogue, participation, and engagement. As such, when these networks are integrated into geographical communities, they are neither a good thing or a bad thing. Rather, “the hybridisation of the social and the technical changes the basis upon which we make judgement about social goods and about outcomes” (5). Or put another way, adding technology to existing communities changes the way we evaluate what good is.
Arnold acknowledges that community networks “legitimize governance.” He confirms that the modernist state is founded on rationality – and the implementation of digital networks onto community life reinforce the infrastructure of governance. He suggests that “last century’s answer to this challenge was the school, the hospital and the prison provided by the State, and this century’s answer is the Community Network we build ourselves” (11). The community network is the participatory arm of state power. On the other hand, and as most of us assume, it also challenges state power – making it possible to “talk back,” “re-engage,” and “re-imagine” community identity and democratic processes. Arnold makes the point that both of these things are true – and that understanding community networks within this binary is the most productive strategy with which to proceed. In his words:
“Policy makers, local governments, funding agencies, ICT system designers and Community Network coordinators have a “top down” interest in stability, coherence and efficiency across the system, whereas users, community activists and local groups have a “bottom up” self-defined interest. Holding on to this binary and playing out the tensions that emerge is one manner in which the Community Network shapes itself, and is one manner in which it can be understood, rather than priviliging one over the other. Each must be embraced simultaneously” (14).
So, in any implementation of Community Networks, it is important to understand how competing interests are integral to their function. As an example, we recently had a meeting with the Boston Redevelopment Authority to discuss the possibilities of employing Hub2 in certain of the city’s design processes. The interests of the Authority are not necessarily the interests of the represented community – but this should be understood as a given, as opposed to a problem technology can solve. In the case of Hub2, the use of Second Life for spatial visualization by the community gives order to the design process, while it also complicates it by inviting more direct feedback and communication from individuals and groups. The possible benefit of employing this technology into the design process emerges from the back and forth between order and unclassifiable expression. The challenge is in orchestrating the space between this binary into consensus. It is my opinion that Community Networks, thusly understood, provide the transparency of power relations required for that consensus to transpire.