Tuesday, November 9, 2004

Won't you be my neighbour?

Neighbornode - a project by John Geraci

"Neighbornodes are group message boards on wireless nodes, placed in residential areas and open to the public ... Neigbornode was developed because the Internet, while really good at connecting people half-way around the world, is really bad at connecting people who live across the street from each other (or a block from each other, or two blocks from each other) ... On Neighbornode you're not posting to enormous numbers of random people, as you might on more general message boards, but you are reaching the people in your immediate vicinity, and you are sure that these people will see your message ...

Want to set up a Neighbornode of your own? It's easy - anyone can set up and operate a Neighbornode anywhere in the world for members of their community to use."

(via)

Along these lines, Geraci and Dana Spiegel led workshops on building community wireless hotspots at Spectropolis, and John also presented Community and Boundary in the Age of Mobile Computing at the Ubicomp 2004 Ubicomp in the Urban Frontier workshop:

"[T]oday's communities are no longer confined to being either purely physical or purely virtual in nature. More and more, communities are choosing to define themselves as both physical and virtual at once ... The dichotomy of physical-versus-virtual has broken down. In this situation, location becomes more relevant in the web-based world (where before it had no bearing), and less relevant (or at least less crucial) in the world of physicality.

What we are left with is a complex overlapping of community upon community, with no borders to be found. Communities become less a series of discrete objects and more a series of interwoven social threads. You take your neighborhood with you to work, you take your entire group of friends with you to your café, you take the café to school. In this sort of world, where physical and virtual are conflated, active participation in any community is decided largely at the whim of the individual, without other traditionally limiting factors coming to bear. Able to participate in multiple communities simultaneously, the individual becomes a real-time link between groups separated in space, while these groups thus become joined together by the individuals participating in them."

While I certainly appreciate characterising communities as social threads (practices) instead of as discrete objects, and I believe that physical and virtual worlds indeed overlap, I am very suspicious of the notion that any technology will dissolve social boundaries. Not only does this suggest that borders and boundaries are inherently oppressive - which they are not - but it also implies that they are weak enough to disappear without being missed. And clearly, Neighbornode envisions some sort of locally bounded community of neighbours.

There is also something else here that troubles me, but I'm not sure I can properly explain it yet. It has to do with underlying assumptions about individuals and groups, and how they relate. This weirdness (see how articulate I can be?!) also appears in most social software and social network discussions, and has something to do with mutually exclusive categories and systems-thinking... I'll have to get back to that another time.

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