Advocate On The Hudson

WiFi Hotspots and the Sharing Community

May 18, 2014

New York City has an RFP out to create 10,000 WiFi hotspots around the city presenting the community with the choice of further homogenization or the chance to express each neighborhood's distinctive character.

WiFi-Share • Bike-Share • Space-Share • Life-Share • Belief-Share

The opening up of communication and information technology can make community-building far easier. While this is possible, it is far from inevitable. Also, Facebook risks being turned into a cliché or joke, as narrow interest groups rally around their pages and likes. Learning to use the new forms of energy being explored here is important, since it can serve to drive us further apart and destroy the possibility of genuine consensus, or it can demonstrate to us how much we already agree upon what needs to be done and make it possible to bring forth important and wonderful new ideas, a re-definition of what a society is and how it works. The challenge is to keep these noble aims from being co-opted, re-packaged, and sold back to us as neat but lifeless replicas of the real thing.

Normally, the two greatest prods to any development in this deeply-capitalist society are profit, as some private entity forms to capture the monetary value out of any phenomenon, or desperation, as in the result of some calamity or disaster when survivors huddle together for comfort. This process brings forth the most superficial, even artificial, connections as well as some of the most deeply-felt and needed. Both levels of contact need some architecture to hang your cause on, to give it a structure. In concept, both selfish and un-selfish motives require systematic organization and clear goals but promoting self-interest characterizes most activity here and is direct and uncomplicated, and is often successful. Trying to fulfill a broader need, means taking in an infinitude of different approaches, and this is inherently inefficient and very difficult to do. Yet, this is the task.

Dispersing the benefits that arrive, from an awakened sense of our common needs, takes serious effort. To keep something from being just another scam, another ersatz “community” which is really just a marketing tool, is not easy. Allowing legitimate and worthwhile efforts to degenerate into another brick in the wall of cynicism that surrounds us, is tragic, but can seem inevitable, given the phoniness of so much. We are distrusting, and that is actually a good thing, because of the conditions out there. Keeping it real is an important element of anything that matters. When you lose that battle you lose the war.

The ultimate consequences of these tectonic changes are as yet uncertain. Plenty have already declared the final score regardless of the fact that we are in the opening innings. Full and open access to these new pathways to human interaction can result in further atomization and alienation from one another or the opposite. We are all part of this continuously unfolding process. To what extent is it possible to modify the overwhelming sense of disconnection that characterizes our society? Are we capable of making such a change, even if we needed it desperately, given our histories and conditioning over the course of our lifetime? Would our lives be richer afterwards, more satisfying and natural, or is this another Pandora's Box, filled with nasty surprises and new and unwelcome burdens?

There are two important human needs that can be greatly enhanced through the fullest use of this opportunity to provide for a more social environment on your block: one is exercise, physical activity that can help to keep you young, and the other is gainful employment, which means the rent gets paid and there is food on the table. Walking alone and eating alone are not as much fun as having a compatible companion. Using a neighborhood terminal, what we used to call a pay phone but which is really a fully-articulated information/communications hub for that locality, is now possible. Often solar-powered, it will carry advertising which some will find intrusive. Still, if it is ads for local businesses rather than National Brands, and is displayed in an appropriate manner, it will be more welcomed into the picture.

The NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) has just launched an RFP, for one company to provide the entire NY City with upwards of 10,000 WiFi “hot spots” and ground level facilities that permit emergency calls and regular telephone service. It is understood that we are all walking phone booths and switchboards now, with convenient directories attached and no fact-of-life has changed more in recent decades than ready access to phone service. The ten pound lumps that people had to carry around to reach their satellites have been reduced to wrist-watches and fancy glasses.

Of course that doesn't mean that you didn't just run out of juice in the middle of an important call and are searching desperately for a public phone to complete the motion. These previous phone booth locations will also be equipped with phone and computer charging stations and perhaps other facilities, and the presenter at the DoITT pre-bid conference also agreed that little “Automats” could be included in the package, to vend freshly-charged phones or other needed items. Plans call for these new installations to be identical, utilitarian but greatly-limited extensions of the former pay phone identity, which provide some more updated services but largely hew to the previous versions of these devices. Holding off the future this way makes no sense at all.

There was a contest organized over a year ago by DoITT to explore newer concepts and designs for these facilities. This is the link to their entrants through their website, NYC.GOV/DoITT . There were some adventurous ideas, many of which could well end up, in another city one day. The stated purpose of the exercise, which attracted 125 entries from architects, entrepreneurs and others, was to explore the various directions that the program could take and give others, besides a few large corporations, a chance to contribute their ideas and models for the public to evaluate. It is true that there was a brief period during which the subject was the Future and the role of futuristic design. Very brief. None of those creative proposals seems to have had much effect at all from the looks of it.

Current plans are very limited. It does not seem necessary to trim these neighborhood facilitates into their minimal state. Why not, instead, expand them fully into the community-based and operated, fully-serviceable units that they could be? While the RFP suggests that a plan in which all of the objects would be identical, and this is what is being asked for, it does not foreclose the possibility entirely, that these spaces and their equipment could also serve as the seed of a live street environment, one which is capable of helping to break down the barriers which ordinarily separate the members of a community from each other. I suggested in my entry, www.LocalExpression.com that the common feature of all of these facilities be virtually identical, with a keyboard, handset for a phone and other elements all contained within a small box, less than 2' x 2' x 2'. The rest of the emplacement, I suggested, should not only be at the discretion of those living there, but even the product of local residents, designed and constructed to be a unique element in an otherwise mass-manufactured environment. It should be a work of art.

Even more importantly, its functions should include whatever means can be found to make that place more suitable for habitation. Once there were posting places where neighbors could exchange ideas, opinions and useful objects. If you live in the suburbs or go to college, there may be a bulletin board with index cards arrayed somewhere there. By and large though, we have decided to retreat into our caves, the way we started, and leave the comfort of our isolation only when there is a good reason. Maybe this is actually the way we are, given the choice. There were long periods in our collective history when we lived in isolate places, seldom encountering one another. More commonly, we have existed in settlements, where one person shod the horses and somebody else supplied a lot of the vegetables. Houses had front porches and downtowns provided excuses to say hello to neighbors. Mall culture has put an end to that for adults. As these super-malls lose their grip to the internet, maybe we will begin to get creative about making our places seems less slick, alien and forbidding.

Widespread free WiFi and public terminals could give public space a new identity, as a place, rather than just a way to get from one place to another. If you were able to play noisy and violent video games there, you could expect a lot of justifiable static and more than a few very unhappy local people. If there is a work exchange, on the other hand, where people can get their dog walked or help for the kid with his homework or arrange for your apartment to get painted, this could become a beloved facility. We are missing the connections between people who are sharing this life but are otherwise virtual strangers. Local advertising can put the focus on the talents and skills of your neighbors and how they can be employed to your mutual advantage. When the impetus for this development comes from the organic relationships that already exist, proximity for one, familiarity for another, the likelihood of a good outcome is enhanced greatly.

Organizing nature walks and exercise sessions, Tai Chi or biking journeys, anything that will upgrade the health of the environment and the populace is going to be easier to expedite if there is an actual physical place within an easy walking distance to serve as a meeting place. Sharing Umbrellas is an effort to encourage cooperation within neighborhoods in the establishment of community space within public space, to literally install an artistic umbrella above, to enable spaces to be made more hospitable. It is hoped that this can be a different arrangement in every case, with artwork and ideas supplied by locals being put into a unique facility. The umbrella is the minimal weather protection which some material fixed in the air can provide to a needy citizen below. These constructions can be artwork, stained glass or waterproof fabric, made of steel or aluminum, or composite and handy to have if you are there making a phone call in the rain.

The ability to establish an identity for your micro-neighborhood, different than every other and fully reflective of the aspirations and imaginations of the blend of individuals who happen to live there, is a liberating activity. It acknowledges our presence and invites more expression. It can act as a social lubricant, a spur to mutuality and human connectedness. It can help to relieve the sense of isolation that cities can harbor and open up new avenues of support and help for those in need. It can make this a more human place, more survivable and more enjoyable. And we can charge up our shared electric-assist bikes there and go for a nice ride to the shoreline and watch the seabirds noisily soar, float and dive there, and be thankful for all that we have been given...................... and maybe even promise to take better care of it.

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