Part I: Creating the Network(ed)

Posted in 2011 The Gnovis Blog

A few weeks ago, I spent the weekend (April 8-10) in Boston to attend the National Conference for Media Reform, put on by FreePress (new window). A break from classrooms and Washington, the conference allowed me to meet with like-minded enthusiastic activists, journalists, technologists, and academics on the status and reform of the media landscape in the United States.

Media reform is a rather vague term, but I like to think that it is essential to the process of changing the media landscape. Countless times I’ve been on the Metro, at a bar, listening to power-walking mom pushing strollers, and all chime in on similar issues: what the “media says” or “society says,” etc. Right-wing pundits believe the media has a liberal bias, to which left-wing pundits point to similar arguments in the opposite direction.

As a former journalism student who failed to find a lucrative job—or the encouragement to continue searching—I’ve adjusted my enthusiasm to tangentially wonder how this industry continues to die through consolidation, not the quickly pointed-to “technological innovation” of the Internet.

The NCMR conference tackled many topics; many have already received coverage through FreePress or similar media outlets. The most motivating event included a DIY workshop about building your own mesh network. From Wikipedia (new window):

“Mesh networking is a type of networking where each node must not only capture and disseminate its own data, but also serve as a relay for other sensor nodes, that is, it must collaborate to propagate the data in the network.”

Walking into a room with plastic taped over the floral carpet and approximately eight tables with wires and boxes and sets of instructions, it wasn’t clear how this would work out. Following the ad hoc indicative of the nature of the network, two leaders from the New America Foundation, Joshua King and Dan Meredith, opened up the room to questions as participants followed the description of the technology and the steps needs to crack the technology—or, open the black box of consumer products.

With varying degrees of success, by the end of the hour and a half session, wireless routers were cracked, some were sending signals, but with all of the questions to answer and the discussion taking place, the mesh network failed to form in its entirety.

Much of the discussion among participants and individuals I described the session to were concerned with the legality or implications that sharing such a resource as wireless Internet could have for municipalities, neighborhoods, the individuals putting them together, etc.

The notion that this all lies in the terms of service agreements that cable giants like Comcast and Verizon include in their customer contracts was news to me. Though it is true that under the influence of lobbyists, legislation was passed that prohibits the creation of municipalities from offering access as a public good in cities like Philadelphia, a new battle is being waged in North Carolina by TimeWarner Cable, a state with seven of the ten worst places to get broadband in the US.

Due to space restrictions and the nature of the discussion, I would like to explore more of this in my next blog post. This subsequent post will discuss theories of the public sphere, current discussions of the impact of mesh networks on bridging the digital divide, and the policy implications that are currently being discussed.