Consume

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= Consume is a London-based project related to the Free Networks Movement; it's now expanding globally; uses little nodes placed on rooftops to create a terrestrial network.

URL = http://consume.net/ [1]

See also: Wireless Commons


Description

"In essence, the Consume concept involves using self-administered open wireless networks to leapfrog the services offered by conventional telecommunications companies (Consume 2000). The last mile, the cable connecting the nearest exchange with the homes of the users, becomes the first mile, the self-administered zone of a network managed by the users themselves. This is made possible by the existence of open standards, licence-free bandwidth and WLAN technology based on 802.11 standards." (http://theoriebild.ung.at/view/Main/FreeWavelength)


History

Penny Travlou:

"My book had come maybe a few years too early. When it appeared, some of the most important wireless community networks of today, such as Freifunk, Berlin, Funkfeuer, Austria, or Guif.net, were either inexistent or existed still in embryonic form only. The model of wireless community networks on which my book had been based had been created by Consume.net in the UK. Consume.net was the outcome of an improvised workshop in December 1999 in Clink Street, near London's creative net art hub Backspace. I will describe the history of Consume in more detail below, but one key aspect of that initiative was that it was launched by non-techies. James Stevens, founder of Backspace, and Julian Priest, artist-designer-entrepreneur, provided the impetus for DIY wireless networking by sketching plans for a “model 1” of WLAN based community networking on a napkin during a tempestuous train journey in late summer 1999. Their “Model 1” - a name chosen for its association with Henry Ford's first mass produced car, the Ford Model 1 or Thin Lizzy – was a techno-social network utopia.


...


James Stevens and Julian Priest, founders of Consume, are neither scientific positivists nor technological determinists. They conceived Model 1 as a techno-social system from the very start. There ideas combined aspects of social and technological self-organisation. In tech-speak, the network they aimed at instigating was supposed to become a Wide Area Network (WAN). But while such large infrastructural projects are usually either built by the state or by large corporations, James and Julian thought that this could be achieved by bottom-up forms of organic growth.

Individual node owners would set up wireless network nodes on rooftops, balconies and window sills. Each node would be owned and maintained by its owner, who would also define the rules of engagement with other nodes. The network would grow as a result of the combination of social and urban topologies. The properties of the technology - well strictly speaking there is no such thing as property of technology as I just explained but lets reduce complexity for a moment - impose certain restrictions. WLAN as the underlying technology of WiFi is called in more technical circles, operates in a part of the electromagnetic spectrum that does not pass through obstacles such as walls. Therefore, from one node to the next there needs to exist uninterrupted line-of-sight. Node-owners need a way of identifying each other in order to create a link. According to the properties of internetworking protocols each of those links is a two-way connection, which means that data can travel as easily in one direction as in the other. Furthermore, node owners would agree to allow data to pass through their nodes. There would not only be point-to-point connections from one node to the other, but larger networks, where data can be sent and received via several nodes. Such a wide area community network would also have gateways to the Internet in order to allow exchange of information between the local wireless community network and the wider networked world.

Those desired characteristics of Model 1 were not actually invented by Julian and James. Those properties already existed, deep inside the technologies we use to connect, but working for most parts unnoticed by those who use them. The key term has already been introduced above, without further explanation, it is the “protocols” that govern the flow of information in networked communication structures. Protocols are conventions worked out between techies to decide how the flow of data in communication networks should best be organised. The basic protocols on which the net is running, such as the Internet Protocol (IP) and the Transport Control Protocol (TCP) have been defined decades ago by engineers and computer scientists working on the precursors of the net, Arpanet and NSF-net. Some people would go as far as saying that the Internet is neither the actual physical structure of cables and satellites used to connect, nor the content that travels via such structures but it is embodied in the suite of protocols, commonly referred to as TCP/IP (those two are usually mentioned but there are many more). The protocols are the essence of the net because they give it its key characteristics. I am not sure of this is not a very refined form of technological determinism, but I would like to leave this question open for a moment.

The reason for this hesitation is that the protocols are not identical with the technology that uses them. The protocols are conventions that can be described in textual form. The way how this is done is through so called Request for Comments (RFCs). Since the dawn of the net RFCs have been defined in a way that runs counter to common understandings how technologies are created. RFCs are approved by techies who congregate under the umbrella of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The arcane decision making mechanisms of the IETF have since the very start been governed by maxims such as “rough consensus and running code”. People who develop new Internet technologies present them to their peers who then react by making noises such as humming or whistling. Criteria for approval are not theoretical consistency but weather they actually do something or not. The robustness and the freedom of the net is guaranteed, despite the lack of central coordination, by the self-organised decision making power of those techies who meet at the IETF. While a lot of those people may have jobs with large corporations, when they meet at IETF conferences the still decide as technicians who adhere to their own codes of human responsibility.

It is amazing, because despite the commercialisation of the net this has not fundamentally changed. Corporations and governments may seek to wrest more and more control over the net, and while they are actually quite successful in doing so in some areas, the social protocols of decision making enshrined in the mores of the techno-social communities have so far been able to withstand all such assaults. On the layer of the protocols the net was and is still “free”.

Thus, when James and Julian wrote out the formula of growth for Model 1, they referred to a freedom to connect that is inherent to the way in which the Internet was originally conceived and the way it still functions now, on the layer of the protocols. The knowledge and awareness of that fact had become buried by new layers built on top of older layers in the course of technological improvement but also the commercialisation of the net in the 1990s. Consume.net was started at the cusp of what was then called the New Economy, a stock exchange boom fueled by the rise of information and communication technologies in general and PCs and the Internet in particular. The 1990s had been a very exciting decade which saw the rise from obscurity of the net from a communication technology used by scientists and a small number of civil society organisations, artists and freaks in the late 1980s, early 1990s, to a new mass medium driving and being driven a gigantic economic machinery. In the process, a lot of the properties that had been dear to the early inhabitants of the net, the digital natives, had become either sidelined or overshadowed by commercially driven interest and the secret workings of the deep state.

Model 1 was thus both a new techno-social invention but also a recurse to the original Internet Arcadia. Against the tide of rising commercialisation and the inequalities and distortions that came with it, wireless community networks were supposed to bring back a golden age of networked communication, of equality and freedom. Technical and social properties were conflated into a model of self-organisation. The possibility for that was provided by a small and often overlooked feature of the technology. 802.11b was the technical name of the wireless network protocol as used at about 1999. It allowed two different operating modes, one where each wireless network node knew its neighbors and could receive and send data based on fixed routing tables, and another one, the ad-hoc mode, where nodes would spontaneously connect with each other. The ad-hoc mode was supported by routing protocols that would be best suited for the wireless medium. In a fixed network with cables, it is of advantage to work with fixed routing protocols. When data arrives, the network node decided where to send it, based on its knowledge of the topology of the network. But in wireless networks that topology constantly changes. Nodes can break down due to atmospheric or environmental influences. The quality of connection can change dramatically because of disturbances in the electromagnetic medium. Or a truck parks in front of your house and the line-of-sight is suddenly gone.

For this reason, Consume.net started to get interested in a technology called mesh networking. In the year 2000 mesh network protocols were still very much in their infants. There was a working group called Mobile Ad-hoc Networking (Manet), supported by the US military. In London, a small company was building something called Meshcube. It was a working technology but it was not really open source and only the developer knew how to run it. When Consume.net started to work with mesh network technology, this seemed to be a utopian technology. While neither James nor Julian were techies, they had the support of some very skilled hackers, but neither of them was capable of significantly developing mesh network protocols. Mesh networking was a dream, something that was already on the horizon but not yet there.

This was a pattern established in 2000 and still very much in place in the year 2014: when the problems of mesh networking would be solved, wireless community networks would flourish and become unstoppable. Social qualities, such as self-organization without centralized forms of control, were mapped onto technological properties, such as the ability of machines to automatically recognize each other and connect to build a larger cloud of networked nodes. The idea of network freedom – the ability to connect without having to apply to a central point of governance, and without having to go through a company such as a telecommunications operator (telco) - was supposed to further communication freedom, and thus the rights and ability of people to express themselves and communicate freely without top-down hierarchical control. The convergence of those ideas I call the dispositif of mesh networks and network freedom." (http://www.thenextlayer.org/node/1231)


Details

The Consume Manifesto

"The manifesto that appeared online under the name Consume described a model for a free wireless network cloud that would be created through the cooperation of individual participants with a large degree of financial and legal independence (Consume 2000). This concept was based on the idea of the Internet as a "network of networks", a structure created by linking up many separate networks. In principle, each node in this network has the same status, as a "peer" among other "peers". The connections between these nodes are always two-way connections with the same capacity. The Consume concept uses this egalitarian principle that is inherent in the Internet's architecture but which has been masked by its commercialization, turning users into (self-)providers. The network grows not as a result of centrally controlled planning and capital investments, but as a result of the accumulated actions of many individuals." (http://theoriebild.ung.at/view/Main/FreeWavelength)

The Manifesto is available at http://dek.spc.org/julian/consume/consume.html

Status Report 2005

"The demands described in the Consume Manifesto have never been properly implemented, at least not in London, and not in the sense of an extensive mesh network. Nonetheless, the concept did take off and has undergone further development in all manner of different directions. Technical development and testing have been carried out in the field of dynamic routing protocols and free hardware-software solutions. These approaches show how alternative objectives can provide the inspiration for technical innovation. But the Free Networks have also brought forth a kind of social protocol, the Pico-Peering Agreement. This process fed further debate concerning self-regulation and openness in social systems. Experience with wireless networks also gave grounds to hope that ad-hoc networks could also be operated with mobile devices such as mobile phones. Transferring this idea to the social field, one can imagine a society in ad-hoc mode (Medosch 2004). The Free Network idea has also made an impact on neighbouring fields, such as work on open mapping or bottom-up cartography (University of Openess 2005). The convergence of socio-politically motivated groups, artistic intentions, and DIY media provide valuable impulses for alternative usage and an alternative understanding of technology. The focus here, then, is on technologies as techno-social artefacts whose development is not top-down, but driven by grassroots democratic processes. Economies based on gifts and barter dissolve logics that have been in force for centuries: in the hands of alternative groups, they become disruptive technologies that bear within them the seed of a paradigm shift in how we understand the interplay of technology and society." (http://theoriebild.ung.at/view/Main/FreeWavelength)


2013


More Information

Detailed 2004 case study by Armin Medosch at http://theoriebild.ung.at/view/Main/FreeWavelength


Free2Air is a related project for London's East End.

The Consume Manifesto is at http://dek.spc.org/julian/consume/consume.html

Check our entries on the Free Networks Movement and the Wireless Commons