Non-Ubiquitous and Communal Internets

You wake up in cuba, have your morning coffee, and you need to send an email. There is no wifi in your house. You take your computer and walk to the nearest park. There a young man is standing on the corner offering small green cards. On them is a wifi name and the password to access it. All around you on every bench and corner sit young couples on their smartphones, older college students working on papers, and mothers watching children play. It is here, outside, among the screams of children and the general buzz of people that you can log on. This park is where the internet lives.

Even this small shift of place, from ubiquity to locality subverts an assumption we all make about about the most important interface of the modern world… In this internet, via this infrastructure, what does it mean to be online? It is fair to wonder if even this small shift would allow for certain forms we take for granted in our ubiquitous and isolated internet. It is fair to wonder, for example, if the sort of anonymous hate much of the western internet has been inundated by could even exist. Still, this is only a shift of one factor, out of isolation and into the communal. Once online the computer is still built for isolated use, the log in still for one person. What we are given here is not a resolution but a hint at the possible.

Scattered across the world there are other shifts and other hints. There have been documented cases of entire families using a single facebook profile. There are stands at public markets for thumb drives of "content" in areas where censorship is heavy. If we hold back our attempts at "why" these systems exist and take a moment to simply appreciate that they exist we can follow their existence to the simple conclusion. Isolated and ubiquitous internets are just a choice.

What if we’re doing it wrong? By we I mean the colonial sense, as in western civilization and western culture. By it I mean the internet. Specifically the sort of access we build its infrastructure to facilitate. There is a prevailing sense that the internet, like water, should have an infrastructure that allows for simple and uninterrupted, ubiquitous, access. At its base this sentiment is a noble one. Like water and education the internet should be accessible by every human on the planet, and this access should be easily had. However, the more one looks the more one finds flaws in, or at the very least other ways of approaching, the concept that the access should be everywhere all the time.

With that in mind, why on earth should wifi be ubiquitous? The prevailing colonial western logic establishes the following basic premise: Because it is good and when something is good it should be everywhere all the time. If you’re not american and this seems foreign or confusing to you then consult the Mcdonald’s Logic: People like burgers, so people should have constant and immediate access to burgers. This stems from the also very american sense that conflates objects with freedom and freedom with democracy. It works like this, In america freedom has no real definition but it is unanimously agreed upon that whatever it is is good and that everyone should have it everywhere. All of this is derivative of the founding ethos, “Democracy is good, democracy should be everywhere all the time.”

The final and parent logic I find to be true. It’s derivative statements less and less so with every consecutive leap down the family tree. So the question we come to explore is about the statement, “The internet is good, and so it should be everywhere all the time.”

Is the internet good? We can address that quickly, it is not. That doesn’t mean the internet is “bad.” We’re just asking the wrong question. The internet is a technology. Technology builds tools. It is immensely weird to point to something like that and blurt out “controlled combustion is good,” because its not. Controlled combustion is not inherently good. It is good at building particular sorts of things. But, perhaps we mean the things it builds are good. So our question becomes, “The things the Internet builds are good.” Again, no they aren’t. It follows from essentially the same reason as above. A tool is not good. A tool is good for certain tasks. Controlled combustion is good at building guns. Guns are not good–they aren’t bad either. Guns are good for abruptly ending somethings life. The same is true of internal combustion engines, they aren’t good, they are good for building machines that move fast or lift heavy or, coincidentally, end somethings life very abruptly. A technology is good at something. A tool is good for something. Conversely, they are very bad at other things and they are very bad for other things. So no, the internet is not “good”.

"…and so it should be everywhere all the time."

Here a definition in isolation no longer works. We’re talking about integration and interaction at a massive scale. This is about industry and culture and environment and, as a result, politics. So often we address this by simply saying, “The internet should be everywhere because it promotes freedom.”

If you don’t want to read the rest of this section then it will serve you just refer to the previous mentioning of the american definition–or lack thereof-- of freedom and to wonder to yourself “Is it a good idea to write policy and build infrastructure based off some ill defined and simple sentences that, owing to their lack of definition, mean at once so much and so little.” You could also skip that and just read the news. There are a series of much discussed points refuting that the internet promotes freedom, some of the best being those outlined in the Ukrainian net theorist Evgeny Morozov’s book “The Net Delusion.” In the next short section I will briefly outline these points for those without better things to do. If you already believe me than skip down to the paragraph that begins “do not be afraid.”

The internet is just as useful for anti-democratic regimes and generally "anti-freedom" dictators as it is for those groups americans selectively deem "freedom fighters". In some cases much more so. A fantastic example of this is the much publicized roll of the internet via microblogging sites twitter and facebook in the protests and subsequent revolutions that were the Arab Spring and Euromaiden. At the time and still to this day is a story is often repeated in which the internet had a pivotal role in the incepting and directing of those moments. Tahir and Independence Square were said to be hotbeds of twitter activity in which tech savvy freedom fighters typed away, organizing brilliant and seemingly instant fronts that, just in time, would mass and disappear like so many white blood cells attacking the disease of fascism. This is a good story. The women and men who made up these movements were unspeakably brave and I do them no justice here. However, that particular story, of the sort of role that the internet played in these movements, turns out to be not exactly true.

When the actual posts surrounding these events were looked at more closely it became clear that while not entirely false, the role of the internet in the organization and mobilization of people was greatly exaggerated. The internet was certainly used, but not in the way the western(or eastern for that matter) media told the story. Rather than say “look how good the internet is as a tool for freedom” we begin to ask “how useful was the internet as a tool in these movements?” and then to the better question “was the internet as useful to the protestors(freedom) as it was to the government’s(fascism)?” This evolution is important for us because it moves us very far away from the original ill defined premise and closer to the actual issue. Years later, Looking now at those movements and their eventual repercussions, no less at the internet’s role in those repercussions, we are further pushed to question our ethos surrounding the internets sainthood, and much more seriously, the forms we choose to physically manifest it in. Further, if the internet’s use in expanding so called freedoms is questionable, then it’s ability to diminish them is concrete fact. Dictatorships can use and have used the internet for reliably identifying and locating political dissidents en masse, selectively censoring public discourse in real time, creating swarms of trolls that intimidate voices and obfuscate fact, and a very long list of other both evil and rather ingenious tools built from this technology.

Do not be afraid. I raise these issues not in hopes of prohibition or to engender fear in any way. The internet does much good. I do it simply to call into question–not to repudiate–the architecture of a political system in its fullest sense. I mean the complex and human made system that links belief and idea to industry, culture, society, finance, and policy. The structure of which that little idea above sits within as a pivot stone. There have been many essays and books and movies which highlight both the good and objectively evil of the internet and I do not wish to spend anymore time focused on it. If you’re unconvinced or curious Mr. Morozov has 400 pages of argument for you. I am not offended if you stop reading this and go jump into that. But the morality of the internet is too philosophical a discussion for my taste. This is not what I wish to talk to you about. I have focused on it simply because with an idea it is enough to find one simple flaw, among much perfection or many other flaws just like it, in order to do irreparable harm to the blind acceptance of that idea. And it is irreparable harm I wish to do and hope I have done.

In short, it turns out that the morality of the internet, like the morality of any technology is nothing but the sum of a tool and the instant of its implementation. Even this is determined only by the particular window from which we saw a particular hand fire a particular gun at a particular being for an unknown but certainly very particular reason. In a word, it’s difficult. And that is all we need to know for now.

I will now take a moment after that particularly long, though I hope not too boring, enumeration of issues with a premise to remind the reader that this is about place. We are asking whether or not the internet should be everywhere. This is a matter of place because everywhere is all of them. Wonderfully, we are not in terra incognita talking about how we build technology into tool and tools into place. This discussion is in many ways at the heart of the story of human civilization. Every time we push the boundary of the real we have had to find some form for it to take and some way for it to be used and subsequently understood. It must have somewhere to be. Looking over our shoulder this way it may seem that while to be human is to love and think and create, to be "humanity"–at once singularly it and plurally apart of it–is to find a place for the things we love, think of, and create.

We place them so well that too often we mistake what is for what should be, what has been, and what will be. We tend to see the current manifestations of technology as part of some inevitable construct. But, history is not a straight line. Nothing made by human hand from human mind is a part of anything beyond the history that shaped the culture that raised the mind that used the hand to build the thing(hagadyah). The tools we make and the infrastructures we build around them are both simply artifacts. There is no absolute principle or universal truth that they manifest. Things can be made differently. Infrastructure can take different shapes. The permutations are likely infinite. Simply put, things can be radically different.

"…alone everywhere"

Often in our western imaganings we view time spent on the internet as anti-social. The image comes to mind of a pale man in a dark room illuminated only by the blue glow of his computer. I imagine all of us have seen this picture or can at least imagine it all too easily. But if we are to question it I believe we would find three pivots.

(1) why is he white?

(2) why is he a he?

(3) why is he alone?

The first two have simple, though consistently ignored answers.

(1) systems of white supremacy in our culture that paint all protagonists as white.

(2) patriarchal systems in our culture that paint all protagonists as men.

those systems were built, are not inevitable, and deserve to be radically altered. I won’t dedicate much time to them here not because they aren’t important but because the third leads us somewhere I’d like to go with you. It’s answer too can be stated simply.

(3)Because we built the interfaces of the internet to emphasis a physical isolation.

Computers, hand-held or otherwise, have been built with one screen and one keyboard. The digital interfaces via which we log on are singular, the profiles we build personal. The interfaces via which we utilize the internet are absolutely exclusionary. It is important the we remember it does not have to be this way just because it currently is this way. Further, as we build the internet to be everywhere, if we accept that the physical objects and built interfaces via which we utilize the internet are isolated and emphasise an exclusion then everywhere we access it we are physically isolating ourselves. We are emphasizing an exclusion.

This is an effect of the current technological institution in the western white world. There are already alternate forms of access that turn these assumptions on their head. Imagine an internet that is outdoors and entirely communal. Imagine an internet which emphasises public life and community, the opposite of the isolated, indoor, private interfaces via which we currently interact. You do not have to simply imagine. All around us there are important hints, not utopias, but glimpses at other possibilities.


Hello @cherryrecently,

Thank you so much for this well written and thoughtful essay on our assumptions and the morality challenges surrounding the internet and (western) developments. And also for ending it on an optimistic note. This is the right tone to develop the Internet of Humans :).

Would be great to hear a bit more about your background as well! What do you do? Where are you from? In which of those hints and projects showing glimpses of this other internet are you involved or would you like to be involved?

And finally, do you happen to have an image to go with your essay? We would love to share it further and that helps. If not I would make one from a quote from the text, if that is ok with you. If so, would you want to choose it yourself or should I just pick one?

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Thank you so much for your kind words! I’m very grateful you enjoyed it. My background is as an applied mathematician. I study complexity and chaos mostly with a lot of focus on networks. In terms of the hints and projects I’m currently working on creating/finding/synthesizing alternative interest-free financial products based off of risk sharing and networks of communities to aid in construction and maintenance of local/communal grids (broadband, energy, water, etc). I’m also working on using the Pirate Box project and expanding it a bit to create neighborhood/city level isolated internets. Of course, I would absolutely love to get more involved in other peoples projects and could absolutely use help with mine.

I don’t have an image but I would gladly make one. What did you have in mind? I also noticed to my great embarrassment some typos in the essay. Is there a way for me to fix them?

again thank you

Hi - quite an essay indeed. Thanks for such a thoughtful piece. And yes you can edit your posting if you haven’t already.

How do you picture a commons brought together more closely through networking, which is what I think you are calling for.

Hello @cherryrecently,

Thank you for your answer. I see you already edited your post.

What is the Pirate Box Project? Could you link to it?

I thought it would be nice to take a quote from your essay, like the one I picked “Imagine an internet that is outdoors and entirely communal. Imagine an internet which emphasises public life and community, the opposite of the isolated, indoor, private interfaces via which we currently interact. You do not have to simply imagine. All around us there are important hints, not utopias, but glimpses at other possibilities.” that you feel would be a good start into it, maybe even one formulated as a question to get people curious and put it in a nice big font as an image. If you would do that yourself amazing, otherwise just send me the quote you would like :).

Have a great day!

Hey Maria, here’s a link for ya:

Thank you :slight_smile:

I TL,DR the above a little but I wanted to let you know about this:

I am friends with an artist couple (out of Marseille) who have recently worked with the guys above. Just thought I’d make that connection.

With regard to some of the text of your post I’d posit that (in part) this perception of the “isolated pale white dude” was because in the early days this very much was the “internet demography”. Of course things change, but not necessarily in concert with narratives, which like to lag.
That said it is obvious that challenging the narrative is a good thing (as so fricken often).

In other news to @matthias the mp3 school is still in the works and slowly evolving. I met up with @gentlewest here a looong time ago and we’ve been at it since then. You can totally book that as an ER win. Also he recently participated and won some money in a challenge on our collab site, which can begin to show you emerging possibilities.
Currently he is working mostly reactively as the situation in Bamenda is a rapidly deteriorating shit sandwich. He is mostly busy with the refugees’ basic needs at this point.
Still, we have approximately 40 mp3 players (etc.) and 100 sd-cards with some basic audio lectures on site.
Current goal on his end is to make an adapted local dialect recording of relevant excerpts of this book: that we lifted of the net.
On my end I am working on sourcing and sometimes ruggedizing/feminizing a bunch of mp3 players, small solar, powerbank kits, recorders, documentation means, spare parts and tools.
Of course the hope is to make this as much as possible of them, by them, for them with emphasis on content adaptation, and hardware life extension.

We are aiming to set up some sort of organization after the pilot runs of this are done. The phase 1 value prop being in short: Resource efficient basic education (and stress relief) for the marginalized, illiterate, and busy in environments where schools do not work or do not exist.
Phase 2: Allow optimization for specific outcomes including, content spread, local content adaptation / creation, impact vs cost, self sustainability, and 2-way learning.

But to be realistic, we’ll need help on the organization front and currently the IDP situation is so bad I am thinking about ordering rolls of tyvek from China to have them locally made into repurposable blankets with mosquito netting and a pocket for the mp3 player glued on. That is if my contact and hero on the ground Eric doesn’t get abducted and tortured again…

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Ohhh wow :blush: I had not heard anything about your work on this so far. If you need some more seedfunding for this, I’m pretty sure Edgeryders OÜ can fork out 1-2 kEUR for more hardware, shipment fees etc…

That book is actually made freely available as chapter-wise PDFs by the publisher itself (Hesperian). See Autarky Library, item 483. Lots of other books in there as well, maybe you find other relevant content.

That Autarky Library content collection is actually the outcome at my end after @natalia_skoczylas, you and me developed the Kafal Local Media Server idea back in 2015. I rather wanted to go for comprehensive content and as a compromise abandoned the audio format as converting all that to audio is impossible without significant funding. Indeed I found all the content, but it’s only English, only PDF, and not open source so that converting it to anything else (even EPUB for proper reading on phones) is a legal issue. So I got stuck at that point as I can’t find a good way to get all that content to the people needing it. Your approach of sticking to audio and going for a small intervention first makes a lot of sense in comparison …


@csik :slight_smile:


Yeah, things are very much in the Kafal vain still. But I did indeed break it down to a much smaller pilot version that is hopefully more sticky on the ground. Once there is a persistent structure etc. it is 0 problem to drop a bunch of epubs, daisy, and pdf on the side of the sd card (we currently have mostly 128 MB). Actually with the players costing around 1-2.5 EUR that is really the cheapest way to get a sd-card reader, an interface (earphones) and a charging cable / infrastructure into use. Anything that builds on this is of course a synergy win (and realistically already happening as I posted some old hardware down there). But a lot of the target audience is not literate, or has time to sit in front of a screen.
And the other bit is that written material can always be read into audio - which could be either a paid job opportunity, or done as synth. My new pocketbook for example reads anything and dumps if where I want via bluetooth audio - probably just a 80/20 solution though.

With regard to open source / copyright I’ve taken an approach that is… let’s say unbureaucratic. Where I can and feel it is right I try to reach out and inform the authors what we’re doing. My expectation is that we will at some point run into problems - but I’d like to make sure they are with the right people / organizations. Because there is a scenario where you turn this risk into a opportunity. :wink:
Or would you like to be a multinational trying to squeeze out money from the poorest of the poor and literally standing side by side with the likes of Boko Haram? That is a very plausible risk in the days of social media and new publishing paradigms.

Then there is a far bigger arc to it as well, such as the “Gutenberg Parenthesis” bit, and potentially conserving dying languages, which could turn out to be invaluable beyond the aid aspect.

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On the ER OUe offer - that is awesome to hear!
We’re in the process of putting the pitch together in the next couple of weeks. Mostly I want to target this at gov/aid/biz overlaps and see what echo I get. Eventually this could be a framework:

But I am very open to think about mini-interventions with potential PR return. For example one could order that tyvek to be locally made into hammocks, bedsheets, tarps (and later repurposed).
The Tyvek could have ER / MoP logo on one side, and e.g. illustrations of the IDPs experiences drawn by them on the other side. These illustrations could be photographed and made into a gigantic digital collage. A potential sponsor could e.g. supply the pens for this (e.g. Molotow from Berlin), another cover the shipment, or pay for the tyvek.
Just a thought.

Oh and we’re dialing in on a naming / branding scheme as well: Pearls of Wisdom (PoW, yes the association of prisoner of war, and the cynicism of the idiom can work for us here) for the mp3 project. If we manage to get more than that done (Eric works a lot around SDGs, womens ed, IDPs) it can be under the header of Mother of Pearl (which, like education, is a beautiful but not fundamentally scarce resource).

Hey @nadia nice to see you too!

You were actually the main point in me finally digging up my password again. The point is a bit off topic (and potentially sensitive) though, so let me know if you’re okay to discuss it here. It has to do with one person we both met briefly on the CMI event in Marseille. The one from SA that doesn’t drive anymore.

We’re in talks with KAUST, and you know that we do autonomous vehicles, sooo I wondered if we were careful about this - maybe this is an opportunity to improve some things for her.

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send me a PM?