12-11-2017 :: Starting Again

The first version of the Othernet was completed in May of 2017.  I spoke about it here and here, and even wrote about it here.  Now I am a research resident at Eyebeam, a social justice focused non-profit that merges art with technology.  I was brought in to fully realize this network experiment and to think about the Othernet in relation to trust.

In the seven months that the network was online, situations like these occurred:

  1.  Taco is a dog with abnormally long legs. Last year our block fought hard to get tree guards to deter dogs like Taco from urinating on our arbor. I was asked to build www.TacoWatch.pee for neighbors to post photos of Taco in the act.
  2.  Mr. M is a botanist I met at our Neighborhood Block Association. He takes great pride in the flowers that decorate either side of his stoop.  For ten minutes at every block association meeting, Mr. M will enlighten the community with advice on to how to beautify our block. He knows how to get rid of Japanese Knotweed without poison, which plants repel mosquitos, and which attract butterflies. After someone stole all of his flowers, Mr. M asked me to build a closed network of surveillance cameras on the block, visible at www.monroe.watch.

I was not expecting The Othernet to be utilized for this type of digital surveillance.

The character of a network is defined by the nodes that it’s composed of. But where does the network operator fit in? Can I, in good conscience, build Mr. M a CCTV system to protect his flowers, when I know there are people suffering from drug problems who nap under a large tree outside my house, and would be inadvertently and unwittingly placed under surveillance? What if I am asked to build a chat server—how will the community feel about their messages being stored on a server that I stare at while I use the restroom? How dependent is this on my neighbors trusting me? Should I move the server to a library nearby? What would that mean for the network’s relationship to the city government?

To impose technology on a community is a form of colonialism. When I started The Othernet, I was guilty of this. I showed up to my block association meeting thinking about things like the Temporary Autonomous Zone when I should have been thinking about Taco, Mr. M, and my place within a community in which I’d only recently begun to participate.

What is this all for?

When I initially approached my block association president about this project, his eyes lit up. Not because of its “disruptive” potential, or its possibility for “new and more intimate forms of sharing.” He looked at me and said, “the city government will love this.” And they will. In the municipality’s quest to turn New York City into a hub of tech innovation, city riches aren’t allocated to the neighborhoods in need of the most assistance. Money instead flows to the projects that can fulfill a DeBlasio vision of value. And right now, tech is value.

At this point, The Othernet’s most immediate value lies in its ability to co-opt the inflated value of civic technology startups and bring much-needed attention to my block—attention that might result in money, which could be used to address various problems caused by systemic municipal neglect—anything from trash problems to unemployment.

However, this doesn’t satisfy me. At the heart of the Othernet project is a belief that the local area network can function as a space for resistance, organization, and community building.  My goal over the next year at Eyebeam is to prove this belief.